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TECHNOLOGY

Giant leaps for stem cell therapy

By Alan Colman for CNN

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Alan Colman: "Within 50 years, we should be able to build simple replacement organs or organ parts."

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(CNN) -- In the next 10-20 years, we will see stem cell therapies applied to the major degenerative diseases of diabetes, congestive heart failure and Parkinson's disease.

Both adult and embryonic stem cells will be used for this.

Within 50 years, we should be able to build simple replacement organs or organ parts, which will be able to deal with end stage organ disease, for example kidney and heart disease.

Less ambitious cell therapy applications, meanwhile, will be superseded by the use of simple drug therapies, developed using knowledge gained from studies on stem cells, and designed to stimulate the body to use its own stem cells to repair itself.

Stem cell therapy has captured the attention of media worldwide.

To some, the term conjures up a futuristic vision of 21st century medicine, where a simple transfer of stem cells will rejuvenate aging or damaged tissue.

Our bodies comprise more than 200 different specialized cell types. Most of these cells undergo rapid turnover during our lives -- we slough off and replace our outer skin completely every six months.

We are able to effect routine maintenance of -- and minor repairs to -- most of our organs and tissues. This is because stem cells not only maintain their own numbers but also mature into most of the cell types in the body.

We possess skin, blood, brain, liver stem cells -- so-called "adult" stem cells -- to name but a few.

Embryonic stem cells are a special category; these cells do not exist in the body but can be generated in the laboratory using surplus human embryos arising from in vitro fertilization programs.

These stem cells have the unique ability to renew themselves indefinitely and are capable of forming most of the tissues in the body.

Stem cell therapy is not new -- the curative component in bone marrow transplantations, which have been used to treat certain blood cancers for more than 40 years, is the small proportion of stem cells present.

What is new today is the prospect of extending stem cell therapy to many more diseases by either applying the cells directly, or using them in the laboratory to manufacture replacement tissue.

Already, we are seeing reports of bone marrow or skeletal muscle cells being injected into damaged human hearts.

We hear reports of stem cell-derived nervous tissue being used to treat spinal injuries, or of gaps in bone being filled by bone tissue elaborated in the laboratory.

Much of this work is preliminary and how well these present attempts will fare remains to be seen.

Dr. Alan Colman is chief executive officer of Singapore-based regenerative medicine company ES Cell International. He was part of the Scotland-based research team that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1997 -- the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

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