Stem cells: Ready or not?

Two items in the news this week show where we are right now with respect to tapping the immense potential for stem cell therapies.

Item one illustrates the enormous hope held by so many people around the world. Patients with incurable diseases are increasingly travelling thousands of miles for expensive, but risky and unproven stem-cell procedures, Nature News reported.

Profit-driven practitioners advertise services directly to clients and are increasingly organized into international networks, Nature said. Though Hungary, China, India, Thailand and other countries have moved to crack down on the practices, many black-market clinics are thriving.

The United States has set rules for testing and clinical application of stem cells. But “numerous US-based companies circumvent this law by recruiting patients to cooperative hospitals in other countries,” Nature said. Other companies are openly fighting the regulations in courts and also taking their arguments directly to patients.

Nature comes down on the governments’ side of the debates: “The enforcement of rules in countries where they already exist must be viewed as a necessary safeguard to prevent missteps and tragedies of the kind that have so often occurred when medicine is based on faith and hope in advance of evidence.”

Item two illustrates the many painstaking steps yet to be taken on the road to actually deploying reliable therapies. While scientists test the effectiveness and safety of various therapies, they still are groping for effective ways to deliver these seemingly magical cells where they are needed in our bodies.

Snorting them? Yep, that’s one approach reported by William Frey, a University of Minnesota professor of pharmaceutics and his colleagues.

The researchers had mice sniff tiny droplets containing adult stem cells from rats. An hour later, rat stem cells were clearly visible in the mice’s brains. To make sure the ability to penetrate the brain wasn’t limited just to those cells, they also had rats snort a second type of cells, from human brain tumors. These cells also penetrated the brain within an hour.

It’s a noteworthy stride with potential for treating a range of brain disorders from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s one stride. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any stem cell-based therapies for the brain. And the researchers have many puzzles to solve: How long do snorted stem cells remain in the brain? Would the “intranasal” delivery work to actually treat a diseased animal — and, eventually, a diseased human?  Do the snorted cells cause inflammations? Infections? Immune responses?

You get the idea. This is a long, slow, intricate process.

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