Regenerative medicine is one of the most exciting and emerging branches of medical science. It deals with the functional restoration of tissues or organs for the patient suffering from severe injuries or chronic disease. A lot of progress in the field of regenerative medicine has been achieved because of stem cell research. The field of stem cells and regenerative medicine has laid the foundation for cell-based therapies of disease which cannot be cured by conventional medicines. In this article, we will try to understand the basics of stem cells and regenerative medicine.
Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine
Firstly, we will talk about the basics of stem cells, stem cell biology, umbilical cord, and stem cell banking. Later, we will look at the broader field of regenerative medicine.
What is a Stem Cell?
A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism which is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.
Stem cells stand out from other cell types by two important characteristics. Firstly, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, even after long periods of inactivity. Secondly, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions.
In some organs, like gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace damaged tissues. While in other organs such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells divide only under specific conditions.
The indefinite self-renewal and potential to differentiate into other types of cells represent stem cells as frontiers of regenerative medicine.
The top three accessible sources of adult stem cells in humans are bone marrow, adipose tissue (lipid cells), and blood. Although in minute quantity, stem cells can also be collected from umbilical cord blood just after birth.
Stem Cell Therapy
Stem-cell therapy is the use of stem cells to treat or prevent a disease or condition. Although the bone marrow transplant is the most widely used stem-cell therapy, some stem cells therapies are also derived from umbilical cord blood are also in use for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and so on. For the curious and intrigued readers, here is a brief history of stem cell research & regenerative medicine.
Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cell research is one of the fascinating areas of contemporary biology and medicine. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand the applications of stem cells in the field of regenerative medicine for treating diseases. Apart from RM, stem cell research is also an important research area within the field of Developmental Biology, which aims to throw light on how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms. In reality, stem cell therapy could be regenerative, but not the other way around; regenerative medicine might or might not include stem cell therapy.
What are the sources stem cells?
Some of the rich sources of stem cells where we bank from are:
- Umbilical Cord
- Amniotic Fluid
- Dental Stem Cells
- Menstrual Fluid
- Adipose Tissue
- Bone Marrow
What is the umbilical cord?
The umbilical cord is a physical symbol of bonding between a newborn and its mother. Inside the womb, the umbilical cord serves as the passage of food for the fetus and is also a medium of emotional connect between the mother and the child.
After childbirth, the usual practice is to cut it and dispose of it.
What is cord blood?
“Cord blood” refers to blood from the umbilical cord and placenta. Usually, the cord is traditionally discarded after birth. However, the cord blood is a rich source of powerful stem cells, which are useful in medical treatment.
Compared to bone marrow, cord blood cells are “immature”, which means they haven’t been exposed to a disease. Cells from the umbilical cord are more adaptable and may be used in a wider variety of patients.
Cord blood stem cells are less likely to cause side effects when transplanted and are available to patients immediately. Cord blood cells are also much easier to collect and cause no pain to the donor.
What are cord blood stem cells?
Stem cells in the umbilical cord are different from bone marrow stems cells, which have been the treatment standard for stem cell therapies. The cells in cord blood include hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPC) and hematopoietic stem cells (HSC), which are also found in bone marrow and peripheral blood.
Compared to other stem cell sources, cord blood is usually considered the safest option. Removing stem cells from the umbilical cord is painless for the mother and completely safe for her child. Collected cord blood can be stored successfully for several decades.
Why do umbilical cords have stem cells?
Stem cells are found in many organs, But, they are present in abundance in the blood system. When the body goes through stress or trauma, more cells are created. During birth, a child’s blood is full of stem cells, many of which can be retained in the umbilical cord.
What is cord blood banking?
There are a number of sources from where stem cells can be banked, with the most popular amongst them being the umbilical cord. Cord blood banking is the extraction of stem cells from the umbilical cord.
Is the process of umbilical cord stem cell banking safe?
Yes. The cord blood extraction is ‘non-invasive’. It means that neither the mother’s nor the baby’s body is harmed in any way. Cord blood is extracted from the umbilical cord just after the baby is born.
Whether it’s a normal delivery (vaginal birth) or a Caesarean, cord blood extraction can be done easily and painlessly.
What does the process of umbilical cord stem cell banking involve?
After the baby has been delivered, the doctor clamps the umbilical cord on both sides, cuts it and then unclamps one side to allow a small tube to pass into the umbilical vein to collect the blood. This is done just before the placenta comes out.
Once the placenta is out, needles are placed on either side of its surface to collect the blood and cells. The collection is done using the specific kit of the chosen stem cell bank. All this is done after the baby is safely out and the mother is more or less finished with the labor process.
Stem cells acquired from the umbilical cord are preserved in the banks at -196°C if stored in the liquid phase or -156°C if stored in the vapor phase.
How are the cord blood stem cells used?
In most cases, doctors search public registries to find matching stem cell donors. Since bone marrow donors are lacking, especially with ethnic minorities, cord blood donations are helpful. Stem cells from cord blood are more adaptable than bone marrow stem cells, which mean cord blood cells do not require an exact match from a donor.
The cord blood stem cells can be preserved for about 25 years.
Why is it important to Preserve Your Child’s Umbilical Cord?
As discussed earlier, the umbilical cord of a newborn is a rich source of stem cells. Stem cells have got the immense potential to treat severe diseases. The FDA has approved “cord blood” cell treatment for over 80 diseases, including blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
Families who are prone to hereditary diseases should definitely choose it.
Your baby’s umbilical cord is a lifeline not just for your baby, but for your family too.
What are the costs?
In India, parents who wish to opt for stem cell banking should pay a certain amount of money at the time of childbirth. The charges for reserving the stem cell range from Rs 40,000 to Rs 70,000.
Introduction to Regenerative Medicine
Regenerative medicine holds tremendous potential as it on the underlying causes of the diseases at the cellular level by repairing, replacing, or regenerating damaged cells in the body.
Regenerative medicine can cure acute and chronic diseases like stroke, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, progressive neurological conditions, autoimmune diseases, trauma etc. Additionally, the populations in the developed countries are aging rapidly.
With this demographic shift, we will see an increased number of the elder people spending more on therapeutics and healthcare. So, the economic impact of regenerative medicine is limitless.
All regenerative medicine strategies depend upon the harnessing, stimulation or guidance of endogenous developmental or repair processes. Accordingly, stem cell research plays a central role in regenerative medicine, which also spans the disciplines of tissue engineering, developmental cell biology, cellular therapeutics, gene therapy, biomaterials (scaffolds and matrices), chemical biology and nanotechnology.
I hope we have now got a basic idea about the potential and scopes of regenerative medicine. Now, we will go into a little detail from the scientific perspectives. I will try to explain in as simple words as possible. But, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section (at the end of the post), if I am not clear enough.
What is Regenerative Medicine?
Regenerative medicine (RM) is one of the most recent and trending branches of translational medicine. In terms of knowledge-base & practicalities, regenerative medicine revolves around tissue engineering (a specific niche within biomedical engineering), molecular & cell biology, immunology and stem cell biology.
Its main objective is to replace, repair (or modify), or regenerate human cells, tissues or organs for re-establishing or restoring normal condition from a pathologic/diseased condition (severe injury or chronic disease). RM leverages the body’s own repair mechanisms to functionally heal irreparable tissues or organs.
Why is Regenerative Medicine the Future of Medicine?
When a human body gets injured or gets into a diseased state (including infection, cold, fever etc.), the human body has got the innate immunity to heal and defend itself. However, the innate immune response is slow and not always too effective if it’s a very serious injury or a chronic disease. Here comes regenerative medicine.
It has got the potential to improve the healing process of the body on its own. Additionally, it can also accelerate the healing process through clinical intervention. RM works towards repairing damaged tissues and organs and to find a way to cure previously untreatable injuries and diseases.
In true sense, regenerative medicine has the potential to solve the problem of the shortage of organs available for donation to the patients who need life-saving organ transplantation, as well as solve the problem of organ transplant rejection, since the organ’s cells will match that of the patient. Know more about why regenerative medicine has a bright future.
Most of the advancements in the field of RM have been possible due to the research in the field of stem cells, tissue engineering and biomaterials.
I have already covered stem cells. Now, we will briefly look at biomaterials and tissue engineering.
Biomaterials are non-viable materials, which have been engineered to implanted and interact with biological systems for a medical purpose – either a therapeutic (treat, augment, repair or replace a tissue function of the body) or a diagnostic one. They may be of natural origin or synthesized in a laboratory, using a variety of chemical approaches utilizing metallic components, polymers, ceramics or composite materials.
When used in a medical application, biomaterials can be implanted to replace or repair missing tissue. Biomaterials, such as bone substitutes and collagen membranes, are used regularly in regenerative dentistry as well as for bone and cartilage regeneration in orthopedics.
Tissue Engineering is a specialized branch of the broad field of RM, and also overlaps with the field of Biomedical Engineering. Few experts also distinguish by stating that Tissue Engineering aims to reproduce tissue in vitro, while regenerative medicine aims to repair tissue in vivo.
Regenerative medicine can also be considered as a branch of translational research in tissue engineering and molecular biology. It deals with the “process of replacing, engineering or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function”. Read more about Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine.
I hope you found this article informative and interesting. If you are keen to pursue a career in the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine, please post your questions in the comments below. You could also look at the top online courses on stem cells, regenerative medicine, and related disciplines. If you wish to have a personalized session to discuss higher studies and/or career, get in touch.