As we enter 2021, it goes without saying that Covid-19 has changed how we live our lives. On top of pushing multiple industries to adopt digital processes like never before, the pandemic has accelerated the advancements in the field of biotechnology, with one of the most recent successes being the development of Covid-19 vaccines with a 95 per cent success rate.
Prior to that, however, the world has already seen several leaps forward in the world of biotechnology over the past decades, especially in the field of medicine. Before Covid-19, diseases like H1N1 and SARS ravaged the world. Through a significant amount of research in the field of biotechnology, we have made sure that those diseases no longer pose a great threat.
Beyond creating more robust defences against diseases, one of the most well-known biotechnological breakthroughs is the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) method. This breakthrough gave birth to Dolly the sheep in 1996, which opened a floodgate for future exploration and development in the field of biotechnology.
In recent years, some of the most exciting news in biotechnology came from stem cell research. For instance, CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing technology is now being used to treat sickle-cell anemia and can potentially cure cancer and HIV in the future.
As stem cell research continues to progress, it is important for patients to be aware of the kinds of stem cells which can be collected and stored, along with their unlimited potential for curing a variety of diseases.
Biotechnological Breakthroughs Over The Years In A Continuous Bid for Medical Advancement
In the 1980s, stem cells could only be collected right before the transplant, which posed a few problems. They included not having enough stem cells if the patient develops a complication and the risk that the quality and validity of stem cells might be compromised.
Since then, many discoveries have been made and developed in the biotechnology industry. These include isolation, cryopreservation, and long-term storage technology which paved the way for stem cell storage and cord blood banking.
Through this technology, we are able to collect and store stem cells for future use. This allows for more stem cells to be well-preserved ahead of time, giving patients the assurance and peace of mind needed.
With stem cells being increasingly used in a variety of medical cases, cord blood banking a simple and harmless procedure in which cord blood, also known as umbilical cord blood (UCB), is collected and cryopreserved for future use.
In recent years, UCB has gained more prominence among medical experts. This is because cord blood is loaded with stem cells that can be used to treat diseases such as anemia and immune system disorders.
One thing to note is that UCB can only be collected at the time of delivery. However, among patients and their loved ones, cord blood banking remains something that doesnt quite come to mind when considering health insurance plans for their children. Many parents are under the notion that because they are healthy, their babies are also healthy.
Because of this, they do not see the importance of collecting and storing UCB at birth. Aside from that, they also fail to realise that no one can truly predict when a loved one might need this particular form of treatment in the future. Hence, storing UCB is a form of biological insurance, to ensure that if something were to befall a family member one day, there are means to treat it.
With that said, there are many different types of stem cells. Each of them functions differently to carry out a specific task.
Examples Of Stem Cells In Action
Hematopoietic Stem Cells (HSC) are stem cells that produce red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets to treat blood disorders.
One of the most effective uses of HSC is in the treatment of childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). With stem cells transplant, more than 90% of cases have been successfully treated. A typical treatment method of ALL is through chemotherapy drugs and radiation.
However, there are times when a higher dosage of drugs and radiation is required to treat certain patients and this can be severely damaging to the patients bone marrow. In these cases, HSC transplants after using higher doses of drugs to kill the cancer cells help the patients to produce normal blood-forming cells to restore the bone marrow functions.
Aside from that, HSC can potentially be very effective in treating blood disorders such as cancer, thalassemia (a blood disorder when the body doesnt make enough of a protein called hemoglobin), and aplastic anemia (a condition that leaves one fatigued and more prone to infections and uncontrolled bleeding).
Another type of stem cells is Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC). These can be obtained from Umbilical Cord Lining and Wharton Jelly. These are very versatile and important types of stem cells.
In recent times, doctors have been using MSC to treat patients with severe respiratory syndrome as a result of Covid-19 infection. The results were very promising and the patients showed improvements after their treatment. Because the immune system is now functioning better, we have seen a decrease in the inflammatory response and an improvement in the immune response.
More than that, MSCs have shown a great deal of promise in addressing autism, a disease that did not have a viable cure previously. Currently, many clinical trials are being conducted around the world in universities with stem cell departments, like Duke Universitys Autism trial.
Aside from that, MSCs are also used in clinical trials to study potential cures for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers Disease. Another exciting area of research is using MSCs to treat heart conditions, Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus, and cancer.
Stem cell research has definitely come a long way, from the discovery of embryonic stem cells in mice in 1981 by Martin Evans of Cardiff University, to being able to treat an increasing number of diseases over the years.
While there is no guarantee that stem cell transplants will completely cure any particular disease, the potential of stem cells is undeniable. Doctors across the world are working relentlessly to discover more and more of the seemingly endless potential of stem cells.
Dr Menaka Hariharan is the Medical Director of StemLife.
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