We are only just beginning to understand the extraordinary benefits that stem cell technology may bring to medicine and the improvement of human health. But it seems clear that organ transplant will be one field that will be revolutionised by this development – and sooner, we hope, rather than later.
True, since the first astonishing breakthrough in heart transplantation made by Christiaan Barnard in 1967, the procedure has undergone many improvements, and life expectancy for patients has grown significantly. But, as with passenger aviation (which also experienced a radical leap forward in the late Sixties with the launch of the Jumbo 747), the fundamentals have remained much the same since. Recipients need to take drugs to prevent their immune systems rejecting the donated organ.
Most crucially, however, they need to find that organ in the first place. In Britain today, more than half a million patients are living with debilitating heart failure. The lack of donor organs is acute.
The results of the University of Utah’s stem cell treatment, on which we report, are extremely exciting, though it should be underlined that they relate only to a trial. Injecting stem cells, which have the capacity to develop into any specialised cell in the body, led to dramatically improved survival rates. Because these cells are harvested from patients themselves, there is no problem with rejection; because the stem cells help heart function, patients are better able to survive without a transplant.
The technology promises more, with some predicting that in future, entire organs will be built from stem cells, thus obviating the need for human donors. That may sound the stuff of science fiction, but today’s news shows that concrete, practical advances that will benefit patients are already being made.
Medicine does not lack for catastrophists, predicting doom around the corner in such vital areas as antibiotics. But, from stem cells to gene therapies, there is also a host of techniques in development which merit as much excitement as Barnard’s pioneering work. With world-leading medical research facilities, Britain is at the forefront of much of this. That is enough to give patients hope, and make the rest of us rightly proud.
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