Stem cells are special cells in our body that have the potential to develop into many different types of cells during proliferation. A stem cell divides by producing a new cell with the potential either to remain a stem cell or to become a cell with a more specialized function such as a muscle cell, a brain cell or a red blood cell.
In the late 1980s, scientists found that stem cells could be derived from humans and grown in the laboratory to replace almost any cell in another human. They have the potential to treat diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, due to their ability to regenerate rapidly.
Just last week, doctors used stem cell treatment on a seven-year-old boy who was suffering from epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a condition which causes skin to blister and rip off very easily.
The disease is a result of a genetic mutation in the genes that code for proteins with the function of anchoring the outermost layer of skin, the epidermis, to other layers of skin.
According to Dr. Jakub Tolar, a pediatric bone marrow transplant physician at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital who is developing therapies for EB, EB is usually lethal and the only form of treatment is extremely expensive, with costs for bandages reaching almost $100,000 every year.
“They’re like walking burn victims,” Tolar said, according to ScienceDaily.
The boy had lost nearly all of his skin and had contracted many infections. The situation became so bad that the boy was in a life-threatening septic state at the time of treatment.
The treatment involved inserting a gene that could generate new cells and graft over wounds. It was discovered by biologist and physician Michele De Luca of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.
Using a patch of the boy’s skin from an unblistered area that included some stem cells, the scientists were able to regenerate the skin. They used a retrovirus to introduce the gene for grafting wounds into these stem cells.
The research team was able to generate 50 to 150 square centimeters of skin sheets, and surgeons were able to use this regenerated skin to cover the boy’s body.
In a month, 80 percent of the boy’s body was covered in new skin, and he stopped developing blisters.
Although the procedure is unable to repair damage to surfaces like the esophagus, which is inside of the body. However, for this boy, his interior surfaces were unaffected. Tolar said that, because of this, the treatment is a step in the correct direction, but by all means not a total cure.
Nevertheless Tolar said that this case was very unusual because it generated a publication with just a single case study.
“This is one of these [studies] that can determine where the future of the field is going to go,” Tolar said.