Stem cells today: new ventures in science and potential for medical treatments

Friday 30 June 2017, 6.00pm, Presbyterian Church Hall, 91 Tenby St, Wanaka.
Dr Jim Faed, Senior Lecturer, Department of Pathology (DSM), University of Otago.

Stem cells are present in all living tissues. They are small populations of cells, specific to each tissue, that continue to provide replacements throughout life for injured or senescent cells. Identification of these cells and characterising their behaviour has been a major challenge. They are not always easy to identify or collect, and in some cases, it is still not possible to prepare purified stem cell populations.

Apart from the fundamental challenge of understanding the biology of tissues, the interest in stem cells has also been driven by the potential for novel treatments of disease and failed or failing organs. Even a drive to satisfy the vanity of those losing their once youthful appearance is not far from the surface. The biology of stem cells is now becoming clearer but there are still giant steps needed before most medical interventions will reach our hospitals.

Historically, the development of embryonic stem cells in the closing years of last century is still providing powerful insights into basic biology and early human development. But the entirely unexpected report in 2006 of a method to convert mature adult cells into a near-embryonic state – called ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPSCs), has provided the major thrust needed to permit rapid development of stem cell research. It has fuelled most of the current scientific energy in stem cell biology and has largely replaced the use of embryonic stem cells. iPSC’s have now been introduced into testing of new candidate drugs and they are providing a leading approach for developing replacement tissues and organs. The third type of cell in this group is the adult stem cell. It has largely been forgotten by the public but still provides scope for developments, particularly the mesenchymal stromal cell which has unique properties for modulating inflammation and autoimmune responses. Currently, adult stem cells are the only cells used regularly in medical treatment – as bone marrow transplantation and limbus cell grafting for stem cell deficiency in the eye

An outline of some of the exciting developments in these areas will be provided, together with an indication of some of the challenges and difficulties that still confront scientists in this field.