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Mesenchymal stem cells: the myths and the risks

By Katie Griffiths, Young People’s Programme Assistant, British Science Association


Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have considerable therapeutic possibilities for the future, but ‘miracle cure’ stem cell treatments are still a risky business: this was the message from top researchers in the field at the British Science Festival today. 

MSCs are multipotent stem cells that can differentiate into a variety of different types of cell types including bone cells, cartilage cells, and fat cells. They come with less ethical concerns than some other stem cell therapies, as they can be harvested from the patient themselves, removing the need for a donor.  There is also clear therapeutic potential for these cells in the future, particularly in treating orthopedic conditions such as osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage that protects our joints is gradually damaged and worn away, until the joints need replacing, at great cost. Dr Ilaria Bellantuono, Lead for the MRC Arthritis UK Centre for Integrated Research into Muscular Ageing (CIMA), and her research team at the University of Sheffield have demonstrated that MSCs can differentiate into chondrocytes, cells that form the cartilage in our joints. The ability to regenerate cartilage would revolutionise treatment of osteoarthritis. However, any scientifically robust treatment is a long way off. Dr Bellantuono explained that there are still many barriers in between us and the use of MSCs as a treatment for osteoarthritis: stem cells age as people age, and as yet there is no clear indication of whether stem cells taken from older people will be less effective as treatments. Dr Bellantuono also noted that although MSCs can differentiate into chondrocytes, we currently have no understanding of how the cartilage itself integrates with the end of the bone, and whether regenerated chondrocytes will be able to attach to the bone.   

Clearly, although the potential for MSC treatments is great, science still has a considerable way to go before any treatments make it safely to the market. However, this hasn’t stopped clinics around the world from offering MSC treatments as cures for neurological conditions, cardiovascular disease, or to halt the signs of ageing. There is a growing industry offering ‘miracle stem cell cures’ that are unregulated, untested and possibly unsafe, warned Dr Masimo Dominici, Head of the Laboratory of CEN Biology and Advanced Cancer Therapies, at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy. He explained that because these therapies are not regulated, there is no control over how the cells are produced, no guarantee that they will be safe, and often no evidence to suggest that they will be beneficial.

Dr Bruno Peault, Professor and Chair of Vascular Regeneration at the University of Edinburgh MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine also emphasised that all stem cell treatments should be subject to rigorous scientific investigations and testing, and that any stem cells treatment currently using MSCs is not supported by scientific evidence.  Dr Peault made it clear that while MSCs will hopefully be a fantastic source of treatments for a variety of conditions in the future, that day is a still a long way off, and until then, any treatments are at best expensive and unproven, and at worst, potentially dangerous.

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