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Cell Growth: Medicine's Future?


They are the mysterious building blocks of our bodies: Cells that can grow up to become part of virtually any of our organs - cells that can be used in transplants and in treating diseases. Now, in what's being called a major scientific development, researcher say they can grow these so-called stem cells. CBS This Morning Health Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay has details.

Some have called it one of the holy grails of basic science: a discovery that may have applications for many of the diseases that afflict humans. Think about it. What if you could replace nerve cells damaged in a car accident, or heart cells damaged after a heart attack, or even brain cells lost to Alzheimer's disease?

As remarkable as it may seem, researchers are a step closer to doing all of these things. Studies published in the journal Science and in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both report similar findings on what are called "stem cells."

Stem cells are the basic cells from which the human body develops. The goal has been to find a way to isolate and grow these stem cells in a laboratory. Now it has been done and the medical applications could be vast.

Because they are so basic, stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in your body. They may become heart, muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, or even brain cells.

Alzheimer's, a degenerative disease of the brain that affects memory and reasoning abilities, damages the brain. Conceivably, if we were able to replace the diseased brain cells with stem cells, we may be able to reverse the damage.

The actual application of this technology may be seen in humans in less than 10 years. Eight years is the figure that some are giving. However, the tissue that is being used in this research is controversial. One study was done with human embryos; the other, with tissue from terminated pregnancies.

There's a whole list of potential applications. Here are some of them:

  • Growing nerve cells to repair spinal cord injuries.
  • Growing heart muscle cells to replace scar tissue after a heart attack.
  • Making brain cells that would be able to reverse the effects of not just Alzheimer's disease but Parkinson's disease.
  • Growing bone marrow to treat cancer and other diseases.
  • We may be able to make the "islet" cells that produce insulin and, by doing, that we can create a lifelong treatment for diabetes.
  • Organs - although one of the lead researchers says that that kind of development is still far into the future.
This is different from cloning in the sense that you are not cloning a person - just individual cells.

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