• Question: What limits the use of stem cells to help cure all diseases and disability because we know how good they are, in the fact that if you are to be burnt then a stem cell can help?

    Asked by jonnyv to Ryan, Ross, Marianne, Lorena, Kate, Kaitlin on 7 Jun 2019.
    • Photo: Lorena Boquete Vilarino

      Lorena Boquete Vilarino answered on 7 Jun 2019:

      Ah, very difficult and interesting question! Our own stem cells are great at helping us recover from injuries, they are incredibly powerful cells which can do so many things. However, it is a bit difficult to make them do things exactly as we want them to at the moment!
      For example, I have worked on making pluripotent stem cells – these are skin or blood cells which we made become a stem cell in the lab. When we used these pluripotent stem cells to make other types of cells which could help injured people (like brain cells or white blood cells for example), we see that the cells we get are not completely what we expect. I think the main problem is that we don’t know how to make them become exactly what we want – it is very difficult to reproduce in the lab what happens in our bodies. Hopefully this will be solved at some point, there have definitely been a lot of improvements in this field lately!
      On the other hand, these “imperfect” cells are a great tool to study diseases in the lab, so even if we are not ready to use them as a cure, we can use them to research how diseases work and whether we can have a cure for them. For example, my old lab made pluripotent stem cells with mutations in their genes which have been found in children with disabilities which doctors didn’t know the mechanisms for. They then made brain cells from these pluripotent stem cells and found how the mutations in those genes made the brain cells be different from a normal brain cell.

    • Photo: Kate Timms

      Kate Timms answered on 7 Jun 2019:

      Great question! One of the major problems is making stem cells change into the kind of cells that you might need to help treat a disease. For example, scientists have been trying for years to try to differentiate stem cells into pancreatic beta cells – the cells that make insulin. It just isn’t working! They’re never quite exactly the same as beta cells. We can’t find the right cocktail of treatment to give the cells to make this happen. If we could, we could effectively cure type 1 diabetes, and maybe other forms too.

      The other problem is that if your disease is genetic, then your own stem cells would have the same defect, unless they are genetically engineered in the lab. So you would have to use someone else’s stem cells, which can cause compatibility problems. A lot of times, after putting stem cells into someone or an animal to try to treat a disease, we can’t find those cells again not long after they’ve been put in, so we don’t know what has happened to them.

      I think that in the future, technology and our understanding will improve to make stem cell therapies better, but we’re not quite there yet!

      People are trying to grow skin in the lab to help burn victims and some of it is looking promising!

    • Photo: Marianne King

      Marianne King answered on 7 Jun 2019:

      Turning stem cells into exactly the type of cell you want can be very challenging, and having the correct cells to transplant into humans would be very important for safe treatments. Different cells from different people also behave slightly differently. So a process that makes neurons from stem cells from one patient might not work as well for another. You would also have to very careful that what you were transplanting weren’t stem cells anymore. Because we’d use a patient’s own cells it means their immune systems wouldn’t recognise the cells as foreign, so the stem cells would be free to form some very nasty tumours called teratomas. These are all things we would have to consider before using stem cells to treat humans. However for studying human disease in the lab, stem cells are invaluable!

    • Photo: Kaitlin Wade

      Kaitlin Wade answered on 7 Jun 2019:

      Changing stems cells seems like a wonderful idea but I think it’s much more complicated and really difficult to change stem cells into something that we want them to be.