It may be a long way in the future, but stem cell researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel have made a step in that direction. In a fascinating experiment, scientists removed skin cells from two heart failure patients and regressed the cells to an embryonic state. These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, were then transformed into beating heart tissue.
This technology could be the precursor to regrowing damaged hearts, but the science is still in its infancy. There are a number of hurdles that need to be crossed before a procedure is viable. In small samples, the new, healthy cells do not sync up correctly with the existing heart. The researchers will need to create a much bigger sample to test the efficacy of the treatment, and the transplant method needs to be perfected.
Another thing standing in the way of the process is a penchant for the cells to grow exponentially, causing cancer. The cure could be potentially worse than the disease. Of course, unless these issues are overcome, the technology will never reach a human market.
Researchers still prefer embryonic stem cells for their mutative properties – they can grow into any type of cell. But harvesting embryonic stem cells is deeply controversial. IPS cells present no such controversy and are uniquely personalized to the patient, a perfect genetic match.
Once the issues are addressed, there will be an extensive round of testing on animals before human trials are considered. What happens in a petri dish does not always translate to a living being…and what happens in animals is not guaranteed to work in humans. It could be up to 20 years before we see a viable procedure, according to Dr. Shephal Doshi, director of electrophysiology and pacing at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.
Breakthroughs in stem cell treatments are coming fast and furious but is this really the answer? Even if these procedures are stable and reliable given enough time, the cost for this very specialized treatment is likely to be astronomical. As medical professionals, we can’t help but be excited for the possibilities…but no one knows better than a pharmacist about the relationship between the ability to pay and the medicines and procedures that save lives. According to the American Heart Association, one in three deaths in the US were related to heart disease in 2008…more than 2,200 every day. Will stem cells become economically viable enough to make a real difference? Or will the technology be available to only those very few who are wealthy enough to afford it?