Stem Cells Still Have Promise to Dent Mortality, but Not Just Yet

Much has been made about the promise of using human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs; but at this point, the research is taking incremental steps forward. Revolutionary leaps aren’t here just yet:

Stem cells broke into the public consciousness in the early 1990s, alluring for their potential to help the body beat back diseases of degeneration Alzheimer’s, and to grow new parts to treat conditions like spinal cord injuries.

Researchers have been slowly learning how to best use stem cells, what types to use and how to deliver them to the body — findings that are not singularly transformational, but progressive and pragmatic.

But despite the slow progress on the use of stem cells in clinical settings, scientists are using them creatively in other ways that may end up saving lives a lot sooner:

Stem cells are also giving researchers new tools in the lab. Using cells created from patients with specific ailments, it’s possible to reproduce and study diseases in a dish.

Kevin Eggan, also with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, uses the technique to study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Five years ago, he took skin cells from two women dying from the same genetic form of A.L.S. He turned these skin cells into stem cells and then into nerve cells, and noticed an electrical problem: The cells weren’t signaling to one another properly, which was probably causing the neural degeneration that characterizes A.L.S.

He replicated these nerve cells thousands of times and then tested thousands of drug compounds to see which would correct the electrical signaling problem. He found a candidate drug — an existing medication approved for epilepsy — that will be tested in A.L.S. patients as soon as the end of this year.

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