Chances are that you have heard about stem cells. But did you know that stem cells are being used right now in the United States to treat debilitating lung diseases? With advancements in the study of stem cells, the question is posed: are stem cells the next penicillin? Stem cells and penicillin come from humble beginnings, they are both used to treat life-threatening conditions, and just like penicillin, stem cell biologists have won Nobel Prizes for their discoveries. Penicillin, originally discovered in 1928 by the Scottish biologist, Sir Alexander Fleming, the full potential of the medication was not seen until WWII. It wasn’t until 1945, that Sir Fleming received the Nobel Prize.
Over time, stem cells have crept into the national dialogue as a buzzword, particularly the stem cells found in fetuses. However, the stem cells being used to treat diseases in the U.S., and the same cells that warranted the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, are adult stem cells. This type of stem cell is found fully developed in all people.
At the turn of the 20th century, biologists discovered that some cells in the body had not yet been assigned as a certain type of cell. The use of these cells to treat diseases traces back to 1968 when the first bone marrow transplant was performed. The result of placing healthy stem cells into a sick individual’s body is the creation of healthy blood cells that are not infected. In turn, these cells replace the diseased ones and start to heal the patient.
Today, a clinic called the Lung Institute is using adult stem cells from the patient’s own fat, blood or bone marrow to provide similar healing results for people with lung diseases. Physicians extract stem cells from the patient, separate them, multiply them into millions of healthy cells, and then reintroduce them into the body. The result, healthy cells replace the damaged ones found in the lungs.
Just as penicillin was recognized by the medical community, so have stem cell developments. If the number of people who have already been successfully treated with stem cells is any indication of the future, then it will undoubtedly be heralded as one of the ground-breaking medical technologies of its time.
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