Pluripotent stem cells: the baby Jack-Jack of the human body

At the end of the movie Incredibles, baby Jack-Jack (while thought to have been a normal baby with no powers) with the right motivation is suddenly able to set himself on fire, levitate, teleport and turn himself into a strange mini-devil. He is much like a pluripotent stem cell, which is a precursor of normal cells, that can further differentiate into a specific type. Depending on which genes are turned on and off, they can produce any type of cell in the body, from skin to lung cells. They can also be edited to produce a perfect genetic match to patients needing transplants, eliminating the worry of rejection or having to be on immunosuppressant drugs for years.

These pluripotent stem cells can be made by taking a normal body cell and, using a virus, introduce transcription factors to activate specific genes and ‘turn it’ into a pluripotent cell.

They are now being investigated in a large number of ways, mainly to be transplanted into recipients with diseases like cancer or spinal cord injuries.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune cells attack the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This affects more than two million people worldwide and is incurable. A recent international drug trial performed in four different countries, uses chemotherapy to wipe out and ‘reset’ the patients’ immune system after their own haematopoietic stem cells (stem cells from the bone marrow or blood) are taken out. The stem cells are then infused back in and after one year, only one patient had relapsed compared to the thirty-nine in the conventional drug group.

When there is damage to the heart, due to heart failure for example, there is no way to recover the loss of cardiomyocytes (heart cells) caused by the lack of oxygen. However, stem cell therapy has been found as a way to regenerate these cells. Doctors at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in the US, extracted the bone marrow of patients with end-stage heart failure, processed and replicated these cells and then injected it into the donor’s own heart muscle. This was found to decrease the likelihood of death and the likelihood of future cardiac problems in these patients.

Further research into stem cells, especially in the field of ‘regenerative medicine’, to restore function of an organ or tissue, will undoubtedly improve the prognosis of many, currently debilitating, diseases. As the stem cell market set to reach $15.63 billion by 2025, even more money is being invested in many avenues of medicine, not just health. Could we possibly find ourselves in an age where our own stem cells are taken and harvested at birth, stored until we need it?

Mollie Boyd