Researchers from the Salk Institute have made a breakthrough in the field of genetics. They created new stem cells that may be able to combat mitochondrial diseases, a broad range of diseases that affect 1 in every 4000 children in the US. The scientists were able to do so both from healthy donor cells and from actual patients that have this type of disease.
Mitochondria are the energy generator of every cell, being vital to their function. They stop functioning correctly often due to genetic mutations. This can seriously affect and sometimes even shut-down entire parts of our body, ranging from the liver to our muscles or even the brain.
Patients that suffer from such diseases have very limited treatment options, hoping that the effects are mild enough to be offset with vitamins. Stem cells may be the answer here, as they can transform into any type of cell in the body, effectively replacing those cells destroyed by failure of the mitochondria.
However, stem cells are notoriously hard to artificially reproduce and even our own bodies have them in very limited supply. The most known method of obtaining them involved extraction from embryos, but there were many who openly opposed this procedure as the embryos themselves did not survive it.
But the team lead by Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte has successfully managed to create stem cells from patients that suffer from mitochondrial diseases. Using only skin tissue, they followed each cell as it divided and constantly removed those that had problems with their mitochondria.
In the end, they were able to create a significant number of healthy stem cells. As stem cells have countless potential applications, this procedure should mark a massive advancement in the field of medicine in the eyes of the average person. But for those that suffer from the above mentioned genetic diseases, it may be just short of a miracle.
The method finally provides a way to reliably harvest stem cells without having to destroy human embryos. However, the cure is far from being complete. Stem cells on their own do not transform into the proper types of tissue. Significant further research will have to take place before a transplant method is even possible.
But the researchers themselves feel confident, and medical experts around the world have paid great attention to this new finding. Regardless, this may be just the ray of hope that people who suffer from severe mitochondrial diseases need.
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