Few things capture our imagination like the advancement of technology. Whether its focus is science, transportation, communications, or any other pursuit, innovation moves humanity forward. Today, most people carry in their pockets devices with computing power that far exceeds anything that we could have imagined a few decades ago. Electric self-driving cars are present in every major city around the globe, and manned missions to Mars are on the horizon.
Time and time again, human ingenuity and talent have made the impossible happen. This is true in many fields, including healthcare. Our lifespan and quality of life have vastly improved over the last century and will continue to do so. Think, for example, of the healthcare system your parents were born into. Compare that to what you have experienced throughout your life –and the rate of change is accelerating exponentially.
The tools at our disposal
Two of the most exciting discoveries in the field of medicine are iPSCs and CRISPR. These technologies are powering innovations that have allowed us to shift our focus in healthcare from reactionary to preventative. They hold the promise of treating and eliminating disease before the first symptom.
The first acronym stands for ‘Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells’. It refers to the ability to take an adult cell and reprogram it to behave like an embryonic stem cell. This means that it now has the potential to become any cell type in the human body.
CRISPR, short for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’, is essentially cut and paste for the human genome. If you have a segment of code that is not performing properly or is causing disease, with this tool you are able to go in and edit out that gene, replacing it with a properly functioning one. As a result, you can avoid the problem altogether.
Treating disease in the future
These tools are currently being used by teams of scientists around the world in clinical trials aimed at producing treatments for a number of diseases. There are over 1,000 trials taking place at the moment, the majority of which focus on gene therapy and gene-modified cell therapy.
An exciting example is a study on the treatment of Parkinson’s disease using autologous neural stem cells. We have all seen the impact that this neurodegenerative disease can have on the quality of life of people who develop it. The symptoms range from uncontrollable shaking to difficulty walking and stiffness. Having a potential treatment in the coming years would be life-changing for the 10 million people currently living with the disease worldwide. The estimated completion date of this study, according to the scientists from the First People's Hospital of Yunnan Province in China, is early 2021.
Another medical condition that researchers are working on is macular degeneration. This is the progressive wearing down of photoreceptor cells in the retina leading to blindness. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Maryland are testing replacing these cells with healthy retina cells derived from iPSCs.
Creating organs on demand
If treating Parkinson’s and macular degeneration are appealing possibilities, imagine being able to 3D print a human heart. That is what researchers at Tel Aviv University have done. They managed to create the world's first 3D-printed heart using a patient's own cells and biological materials. To start, they created a smaller version, about the size of a rabbit heart. It was complete with blood vessels, ventricles, and chambers. They accomplished this by taking a sample of tissue, reprogramming the cells to become pluripotent (iPSCs), and transforming them into the cells that make up the heart muscle.
This is a major breakthrough. Hearts created in that way can completely match the immunological, cellular, biochemical, and anatomical properties of the patient. What this means is that once this technology is available, patients will no longer have to wait for a donor. Additionally, there will be no rejections of the transplanted organs since they will contain the patient’s own cells. It is extremely exciting given that cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in industrialized nations.
These are just a few examples of what the future holds for regenerative medicine. Ongoing trials encompass therapeutic areas across the human body. These include oncology (cancer treatments), neurological disorders, gastroenterology, cardiovascular disorders, and even responses to infectious disease.
In short, the possibilities are endless. Having the tools to theoretically treat any disease imaginable will change our lives and our societies in more ways than we can imagine today. The first step anyone looking to take advantage of these future therapies should take is banking their cells. In doing so, they can ensure that doctors will have the best possible material to work with once these treatments are available.
To take advantage of cell banking, head to Acorn’s lab headquarters in the MaRS Centre in Downtown Toronto. You can also sign up to order the world's first affordable, accessible, live-cell home collection kit.