Medicine's Holy Grail
Page 4: The Potential
Saturday, August 18, 2001
Besides their chameleon capabilities, stem cells entice scientists with their ability to regenerate. Most other cells divide roughly 50 times before they die, but a stem cell can proliferate indefinitely. Although they are not immortal, they are plentiful.
If scientists can manipulate stem cells to grow into whatever anatomical part a patient requires, they would no longer need donated organs and tissues - which are scarce.
Harnessing the power of stem cells would also mean that doctors could move far beyond patching up old or damaged body parts with used ones. They could theoretically generate tissues that would be as good as new.
University of Pittsburgh urologist Michael Chancellor, who reported in June that his research team had grown a urethral sphincter muscle from stem cells extracted from the muscles of adult mice, said scientists will some day be able to produce new body parts "like a starfish regenerates a limb."
Scientists have also found that stem cells, once transplanted, merge easily with the biology of their new home.
In the case of the urethral sphincter, skeletal muscle began to form over the regenerated valve within weeks of the stem-cell concoction being injected.
The applications to treat and perhaps cure currently incurable diseases have some scientists discussing the regenerative powers of stem cells as though they could be the source of the fountain of youth.
As Michael West, founder of the California-based Geron Corp. that financed Thompson's research, once said: "When I hear critics saying that they don't want to see life span extended, they are thinking about the old myth of Tithonus, where people live longer in a decrepit state.
"That's not what we are talking about doing."
Next page: The Problems