Could breakthrough innovation in ‘Regenerative Medicine’ significantly reduce the need of expensive lifelong medications, or even make the use of some important medical devices less relevant, or even help avoiding expensive and risky surgical interventions? The common answer to these critical questions is now getting clearer, in tandem with the rapid progress of the science of ‘Regenerative Medicine.’
On June 13, 2017, Nature Biomedical Engineering published an interesting an article titled, “3D-printed vascular networks direct therapeutic angiogenesis in ischemia.” In simple words, these 3D-Printed patches are going to usher in a highly innovative way to treat ischemic diseases, in the future. As the researchers highlighted, arterial bypass grafts are currently considered as the gold standard for the treatment of end-stage ischemic disease, though many patients are unable to tolerate the cardiovascular stress of arterial surgery. The researchers found that implantation of 3D-printed grafts containing endothelial-cell-lined lumens, induces spontaneous and geometrically guided generation of collateral circulation in ischemic settings.
In rodent models of hind limb ischemia and myocardial infarction, these scientists successfully demonstrated that the vascular patches rescue perfusion of distal tissues, preventing capillary loss, muscle atrophy and loss of function.
In this article, I shall deliberate on the importance of this discovery, and its overall future implications on a broader perspective.
Here comes the basic question – What is ‘Regenerative Medicine’?
It is defined as a highly innovative branch of medicine that develops implementable methods to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues. According to RegerativeMedicine.net following are illustrations of some conditions or diseases that regenerative medicine has the potential to cure, and what their current state of treatment looks like in in the American perspective:
- Heart valves- 250,000 patients receive heart valves, at a cost of US$27 billion annually
- Heart disease and Stroke- 950,00 people die of heart disease or stroke, at a cost of US$ 351 billion annually
- Diabetes- 17 million patients have diabetes, at a cost of US$ 132 billion annually
I discussed in this blog, the subject of ‘3D Printing in health care’ on January 11, 2016. Hence, won’t dwell on that subject here
Ischemia, and the relevance of the above discovery:
Ischemia, as many would know, is a condition that restricts adequate flow of blood in some parts of our body, which over a period, may narrow, harden or even block the important blood vessels, much often resulting in stroke, heart attack or other related life-threatening vascular disorders.
Currently, ischemic heart conditions are usually treated either with blood thinning drugs, or blood vessel relaxants. In more serious stages of this condition, doctors prefer angioplasty or other surgical interventions, such as coronary artery bypass.
In this broad perspective, the relevance of the above discovery in addressing various debilitating or life- threatening ischemic conditions, is profound. Its novelty lies in the ability of the scientists making a 3D-printed patch that can be infused with cells to help grow healthy new blood vessels.
An emerging medical space:
The science of ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is increasingly being considered as an emerging medical space aimed at the treatment of those diseases that are usually classified as degenerative, incurable and irreversible. As it appears today, this science has the potential to unfold a new paradigm in this space, where patients can expect cure for many serious ailments, such as, spinal injuries, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and even diabetes, besides many others.
One more recent pursuit in this much uncharted frontier was reported in the British news daily – ‘The Telegraph’ on February 21, 2017, revealing the outcome of a path-breaking medical study for freezing the progression of a crippling ailment called Multiple Sclerosis (MS). This research followed a unique Stem Cell (SC) transplantation process, and is regarded as the largest long-term follow-up of SC transplantation treatment study of MS in regenerative medicine.
This study, spearheaded by Imperial College London, established that 46 per cent of patients who underwent the treatment did not suffer a worsening of their condition for five years. The process works by destroying the immune cells responsible for attacking the nervous system. This is indeed a very significant development in the space of medical research.
The treatment, called autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), was given to patients with advanced forms of MS who had failed to respond to other medications. However, the researchers noted that the nature of the treatment, which involves aggressive chemotherapy, carried “significant risks”.
As many would know, MS is caused by the immune system malfunctioning and mistakenly attacking nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to problems with movement, vision, balance and speech. It’s a lifelong condition and often causes serious disability, with no cure still in sight. The disease is most commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, although it can develop at any age.
A potential game changer:
According to California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), this procedure has a game changing potential for successful use:
- To replace neurons damaged by spinal cord injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or other neurological problems
- To produce insulin that could treat people with diabetes, and heart muscle cells that could repair damage after a heart attack, or
- To replace virtually any tissue or organ that is injured or diseased
Research on “Regenerative Medicine’ signals a new hope:
Following are examples of just a few more promising developments, indicating that research in ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is taking rapid strides, signaling a new hope:
- A cure for Type 1 diabetes:
According to an international report on October 9, 2014, for the first time after 23 years of research, Harvard University has been able to manufacture millions of beta cells required for transplantation. It could mean a cure for diabetes, and the end of daily insulin injections for patients living with Type 1 diabetes. Although, just around 10 per cent of all diabetes is Type 1, it is the most common type of childhood diabetes.
The report indicated, the stem cell-derived beta cells are presently undergoing trials in animal models, including non-human primates, where they are still producing insulin after several months.
Another report of April 2014 indicates that for the first time, scientists have successfully replaced the damaged DNA of a type 1 diabetes sufferer with the healthy genetic material of an infant donor. When these cells are injected back into the diabetic patient, it is expected that they will begin to produce insulin on their own.
- Restoring vision in macular degeneration:
Yet another study published in ‘The Lancet’ in October 2014 stated that scientists in the United States have announced that single transplant of stem cells has helped restore the sight of patients suffering from incurable forms of blindness due to Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Currently no effective treatments exist for this eye disorder, which can cause complete blindness due to the loss of light-receiving photoreceptor cells in the retina.
To recreate a type of cell in the retina that supports those photoreceptors, the new treatment uses stem cells derived from embryos that are only a few days old and have the ability to develop into any kind of tissue in the body. However, the transplants have proved controversial because they use stem cells derived from spare human embryos left over from IVF treatment.
- A cure for heart failure:
One more international report of May 01, 2014 states, by injecting human stem cells into the organs of macaque monkeys, scientists have been able to regenerate their damaged hearts by up to 40 per cent in just a few weeks. Thus, it appears now that a cure for heart failure could be just a few years away and would mean that even people who are “bed-bound” with heart failure could be “up and about” again within a few weeks.
As on date, the heart muscle cannot be repaired, making people with severe heart failure necessarily wait for a heart transplant, provided the patients are willing, and can afford so.
There is a host of diseases, including several chronic ailments, such as diabetes, heart conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, or some types of cancer, which can’t be reversed, however, could be managed with a lifelong treatment. For most of these diseases, ‘Regenerative Medicine’ has the potential to be a game changer by transforming many lives.
Moreover, ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is expected not just to bring down the cost of health care and the disease burden significantly, but would also help increasing the economic productivity of a nation considerably.
Currently, medical research of the highest order in this area, has mostly been conducted by various academia of global repute, along with a few in the industry. It should soon involve, besides patients, several industries, including pharmaceuticals and biotech sectors, in a big way.
Nevertheless, this emerging trend sends a clear signal that to treat various chronic, incurable, irreversible and seriously debilitating degenerative diseases ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is now poised to take a giant leap in the health care space. In that process, it would possibly help healing various ailments in a more meaningful, providing a cure for many chronic diseases that was a badly missing piece in the medical science, so far.
Thus, ‘Regenerative Medicines’ to treat many ‘Degenerative Diseases’ signal a great potential to give an altogether new shape and dimension to the future of global health care. It is also expected to ensure lesser lifelong usage of expensive drugs, setting a new normal to bring back the patients’ lives back to the pre-disease state.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.