How are stem cells used in medicine today?

Cutting-edge Uses for Stem Cells

Stem cell treatments today seem to resemble the preseason polls for your favorite sports team. There's a great deal of promise and potential, but the actual number of treatments that have been proven to be effective, through well-established clinical trials, is much more limited.

According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the "best defined and most extensively used (treatment) is blood stem cell transplantation to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system, or to restore the blood system after treatments for specific cancers. Some bone, skin and corneal diseases or injuries can be treated with grafting of tissue that depends upon stem cells from these organs. These therapies are also generally accepted as safe and effective by the medical community" [source: ISSCR].

For example, stem cells transplants are now being used for treatment of certain cancers and sickle cell anemia. Unlike other cells, these stem cells can produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and clot-forming platelets [source: WebMD].

These stem cells can be taken from the patient prior to radiation or chemotherapy treatment, or from a matching donor. Doctors warn that the procedure can be tedious and sometimes difficult, and often must take into account the patient's age and general physical condition prior to treatment.

The potential of stem cell treatment, however, appears almost as unlimited as their ability to regenerate. Foremost is drug research, allowing scientists to test experimental drugs on human cells, rather than animal tissue. Stem cells are currently under consideration for a dizzying variety of other treatments, including organ and tissue regeneration, treatment of brain maladies such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, blood diseases and cell-deficiency therapy, such as treatment of certain heart ailments.

In July 2011, the American Heart Association released a study indicating that stem cell treatment might help patients with forms of angina that hadn't responded to other treatments, including angioplasty, prescription drugs or surgery [source: WebMD]. And researchers in Japan recently discovered how neural stem cells could be used as an alternative source of the beta cells needed for a regenerative treatment for diabetes [source: ScienceDaily].

Still, many of these promising treatments remain largely untested, at least to the satisfaction of many in the medical community and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). What, then, are the risks associated with stem cell treatments?