Heal Thy Self: Self-Repairing Organs
Is there any way to heal a broken heart? Scientists such as Shinya Yamanaka, currently based at Kyoto University in Japan, continue to make an effort to answer this question through their research on stem cells. In 2006, Yamanaka successfully transformed adult mouse cells back into a stem-cell-like state by inserting transcription factors in the form of a protein cocktail. 1 The experiment changed the way cells express genes by switching or inducing the cells to a pluripotent state, which can be described as an immature cell capable of giving rise to several different cell types. Once pluripotent, these cells become capable of differentiation into any cell type found in the tissue of the body. In 2007, Yamanaka successfully transformed human cells - induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells promised to avoid the ethical issues linked with harvesting embryonic stem cells. 1
The promise IPS cells hold in curing or arresting the damage done by neurodegenerative disorders, cardiac arrest and strokes are worthy of being pursued further. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve stem-cell therapies involving IPS but has approved a limited amount of stem-cells therapies, all of which involve the use of embryonic cells. 1 The similarity of IPS cells to embryonic stem cells is currently being questioned, along with the ability of lab-grown cells to integrate into the body.
At first, much of the research in this area revolved around lab-grown cells, but once these cells were implanted into the body they failed to integrate. Researchers then turned to attempting to grow the cells inside the body, and initial studies showed promise, proving to work in simple cell conversions. The hurdle to rebuilding heart and brain muscles/tissue remained, as regulatory and cost constraints limit the ability of researchers to move forward with such studies. However, there is another way of repairing tissue from the inside of the body; instead of repurposing cells, researchers are trying to stimulate the growth of new cells. Research is now focused on multiplying cells by regulating the “cell cycle” that controls proliferation during the gestation of a fetus. 1
Researchers have the potential to correct the damage done to the heart during cardiac arrest, repair the effects on brain cells after a stroke, or possibly to even stop the neurodegenerative effects resulting from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The potential to have the body heal itself by growing cells within it is a breakthrough which should not be hindered by current regulation. Studies have shown cell stimulation works in adult mice, and clinical trials in humans should start as soon as possible. Researchers need to move forward by following the regulations set by the FDA and their organization’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The potential for risk and study failure exists, but without risk, there is little chance for success. The use of IPS isn’t playing God and removes the ethical quagmire surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. The benefit of solving the riddle of internal regeneration supersedes the risks involved in clinical trials.
1. Ball, Philip, “Self-Repairing Organs Could Save Your Life In A Heartbeat.” New Scientist (May 9,2018). https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newscientist.com/article/2168531-self-repairing-organs-could-save-your-life-in-a-heartbeat/amp/