In the past three decades, modern medicine has gained extraordinary ground. In addition to refining our understanding of stem cells and how they function, we’ve quickly moved to bioengineering sheep and other animals from somatic cells, as well as tissues that could possibly be used for transplants. It’s seemingly the stuff of science fiction. But it’s happening; it’s called regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine is the science of using living human cells to fight, repair, replace and/or otherwise heal damaged, diseased or decaying ones. It’s a broad term and can be applied in and for a variety of different situations and conditions. Many people may only associate regenerative medicine with sports injuries since several well-known athletes have made headlines by undergoing a stem cell treatment to help alleviate the effects of their acute or chronic injuries. But while stem cell therapy is one type of regenerative procedure, it’s not the only one. Regenerative medicine includes all of the following clinical therapies:
Stem cells are at the heart of regenerative medicine. After all, they are the body’s “master cells,” capable of making many, if not all (as in the case of embryonic stem cells), of the body’s different cell types. But other cells can be used for cell therapy, as well, including red blood cells, certain types of immune cells and islet cells. Red blood cells, for example, can be harvested to create a platelet rich plasma (PRP) and mesenchymal stem cells can be used to treat pain and inflammation for degenerative joint conditions.
Immunotherapy is a type of cellular therapy, but it also includes the transfer of certain proteins and monoclonal antibodies and/or other molecular material such as interleukins and interferons. Its goal is not so much to repair cells but to fight “bad cells.” It does this by either strengthening the body’s overall immune system so that it can fight a disease (usually cancer) on its own or by creating an “army of cells” specifically programmed to target certain “bad” cells (like those in a tumor). In either case, specific immune cells are harvested from a donor, grown and/or modified in a lab and then injected into a patient to effectuate healing.
Transplantation and Bioengineering
Finally, regenerative medicine can also refer to those treatments that aim to replace or repair large areas of damaged tissue (like organs, large portions of the skin and bone marrow). A traditional organ transplant, for instance, is a type of regenerative procedure. Indeed, some transplants are also stem cell transplants, such as when bone marrow and its accompanying hematopoietic stem cells are harvested and then transplanted into a recipient to treat leukemia. And sometimes, tissues can be manufactured using living cells so that they can be transplanted into a body to provide a conducive environment for cell proliferation and growth. Examples of this include using bone grafts to treat cancerous or badly broken bones or growing artificial skin to cover severe burns.