Guest Post by Dr Mark Chong, who was one of the distinguished speakers at a public Stem Cell Symposium entitled ‘Promise or Hype?’ that was organised by Science Centre Singapore and the Stem Cell Society on 13 August 2011.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to THAT age, that I’ve recently come to notice advertisements by clinics and beauty salons offering innovative stem cell treatments for a host of ailments. These institutions promise to cure me of my aging skin, backaches or even chronic conditions associated with diabetes. Unfortunately, these hard-sell tactics confuse the general public, offer false hope to highly vulnerable patients, and ultimately result in disillusionment with stem cell research when these claims fail to deliver.
Don’t get me wrong; stem cell do offer great promise and have, in fact, saved thousands of life thus far, in the form of bone marrow transplants. In this procedure, bone marrow containing blood-forming stem cells (commonly known as haematopoietic stem cells or HSC) are transferred from a healthy donor to a patient with damaged bone marrow. HSC transplants are currently routinely carried out in the treatment of leukemia and other diseases of the blood system. Recent innovations include methods to “release” these stem cells into the donors’ blood circulation (thus removing the need for painful bone marrow extraction) and the discovery of alternative sources of HSC, including umbilical cord blood.
However, several obstacles must be overcome before we can see the routine use of stem cells in the clinic. Two of these are nicely highlighted by the clinical success of HSC. Firstly, how do we make stem cells behave in an appropriate fashion? HSC transplantation simply involves transfering bone marrow from a healthy donor to a patient, where the HSC continue to carry on their usual business of generating blood. In that aspect, it is not too different from organ transplants. Secondly, how do we make the stem cells go to where they are needed? HSC injected into the patients’ blood circulation are able to find their way to the bone marrow, which serves as a home (commonly called “niche”) for the HSC to engraft permanently. This was a serendeptious finding, and cannot be expected to work for all forms of cellular injections.
As a stem cell researcher, I’m immensely excited by the potential impact of stem cells in medicine. We are standing at the crux of experimental medicine, where stem cells are beginning to see their way into clinics in the form of well-controlled trials. With continued investment of resources, including time, stem cells will definitely live up to their billing as the “Medicine of the Future”.
(The following website is highly recommended for further unbiased information on stem cell therapy http://www.isscr.org/ForThePublic.htm )
Dr Mark Chong graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Mechanical Engineering degree and a PhD in Bioengineering. Dr Chong is currently a research fellow in the department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, where he conducts research on perinatal stem cell, including umbilical cord blood stem cells. His research interests are in stem cell biology, regenerative medicine and integrative science and engineering. Dr Chong was awarded the Helmut Reul Young Investigator at the 17th Congress of the International Society of Rotary Blood Pumps in 2009 for his work on developing tissue-engineered surfaces for blood pump and artificial heart applications.