When Adrienne Shapiro’s daughter Marissa was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, the doctors said that she would not live till her first birthday. However, when Marissa managed to live past that benchmark, it did not mean the end of Adrienne’s worries. In fact, it was the beginning of many painful years of blood transfusions and immunological disorders. When an improperly matched blood transfusion caused a severe reaction leading to the removal of Marissa’s gall bladder and temporary kidney failure, she was unable to receive further blood transfusions.
However, luckily for Marissa a project sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), headed by Don Kohn, MD at UCLA, was starting a clinical trial. The objective of the project was ‘to remove bone marrow from the patient and fix the genetic defect in the blood-forming stem cells. Then those cells can be reintroduced into the patient to create a new, healthy blood system.’ The success of this clinical trial has given hope to Adrienne that with the help regenerative medicine her daughter will be able to lead a healthy and pain-free life.
The Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison describes ‘Regenerative Medicine’ as ‘a new scientific and medical discipline focused on harnessing the power of stem cells and the body’s own regenerative capabilities to restore function to damaged cells, tissues and organs.’
Stem cells that are found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn children have the ability to renew and regenerate themselves. A stem cell, through the process of mitosis, can divide itself to either become a specialised cell like a brain cell or muscle cell or remain a stem cell. They are also able to repair internal damage caused by any type of disease, disorder or trauma. Stem cell transplantation, stem cell grafting and regenerative medicine are some of the ways in which stem cells are used to cure disorders and illnesses.
Regenerative medicine includes a wide range of scientific disciplines, such as biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology and immunology. Scientists from these fields have been conducting research and studies in this domain and have identified three methods of using regenerative medicine. They are cellular therapies, tissue engineering and medical devices and artificial organs.
Cellular Therapies – In this method, cellular materials, in most cases adult stem cells, are extracted and stored and then injected into the site of injury, tissue damage or disease. These cells, thereafter, repair the damaged cells or regenerate new cells to replace the damaged ones.
Tissue Engineering – This method is related to the field of biomaterials development and utilises a combination of functioning tissues, cells and scaffolds to engineer a fully functioning organ which is then implanted into the body of the receiver in place of a damaged organ or tissue.
Medical Devices and Artificial Organs – When a body organ fails, the most common method of treatment is to replace it with a donor organ. Donor organs are not easily available and can pose as a hindrance in such cases. Even if a donor is available, he or she may need to take immunosuppressant drugs before the transplant and these drugs have been known to cause side-effects. In such circumstances, medical devices that imitate the function of the failed organ can be used, instead of transplantation. An example of one such device is the ventricular assist device (VAD) that is used in place of heart transplants.
Since regenerative medicine deals with the use of stem cells, it occasionally requires embryonic stem cells for research purposes. This use of embryonic stem cells can often give rise to questions regarding ethics and legality. The laws and regulations concerning regenerative medicine are different in different countries. Creation of human embryos for research is only legally permitted in three countries. The majority of the countries only allow extraction of cells from surplus IVF embryos. A recent study, related to human embryonic stem cells (hECS) research policy, was conducted which revealed that the UK, Sweden and Belgium were very permissive in authorising the creation of human embryos for research, whereas, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland and Ireland had no laws regarding hECS. The legislations regarding hESC in most other countries range from being mildly restrictive to very restrictive.
Regenerative medicine is the future of modern medical treatments. Scientists are conducting clinical trials and studies every day to further enhance and improve in this area of medicine.
 Stories of Hope: Sickle Cell Disease (2014) – California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (https://www.cirm.ca.gov/our-progress/stories-hope-sickle-cell-disease-2014)
 What is regenerative medicine? – Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center University of Wisconsin-Madison – (http://stemcells.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/What%20is%20regenerative%20medicine.pdf)