Readers will likely remember the political fights that have happened over the past decade around the use of embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are so-called “pluripotent” cells -- they have the capacity to differentiate into many different kinds of tissue. They offered the promise of regeneration -- that is, that transplanted stem cells could be encouraged to graft themselves into organs damaged by age, disease, or trauma, and restore or “regenerate” those organs to a healthier state. The political conflict happened because socially conservative voters opposed the use of stem cells derived from discarded human embryos.
Advancement in medical science, though, is gradually putting those concerns to rest. Stem cells can now be made from many types of human cells, not just from embryos. And highly experimental work is being done in the medical application of stem cells. Biotech companies such as Aethersys (ATHX) , Neostem (NBS) , and Neuralstem (CUR) are in early-stage research to use stem cells therapeutically for a variety of indications, including neurological, cardiovascular, and inflammatory conditions. Similar research is also being pursued by larger, established biotechnology firms such as Amgen (AMGN) and Celgene ($CELG).
(It is our opinion that it is too early to invest directly in this technology, and the small speculative pure-play regenerative medicine companies may not survive to bring any profitable products to market. However, we watch the space closely to follow the development of the technologies involved.)
Now we’ve read about a new development in regenerative medicine that doesn’t rely on stem cell transplants. Researchers at Edinburgh University in the U.K. have used tamoxifen, a breast cancer drug, to regenerate the thymus in mice. The thymus is where T cells mature -- which are a kind of white blood cell critical in the body’s immune system. As animals age, the thymus produces fewer T cells, resulting in lowered immunity, which is why older animals (and older people) tend to get sick more often.
The Scottish researchers succeeded in regenerating the thymuses of geriatric mice, and boosting their production of T cells back to youthful levels. While this work is certainly years -- or decades -- from commercial application in humans, it shows that regenerative medicine can extend beyond stem-cell grafts and into other methods for reversing the effects of aging on the body’s systems.
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