Embryonic stem cells to tackle major killer diseases

Oct 11, 2014

Image: Tom Merton/Getty

By Andy Coghlan

Stem cells are getting serious. Two decades after they were discovered, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are being tested as a treatment for two major diseases: heart failure and type 1 diabetes.

Treatments based on hESCs have been slow coming because of controversy over their source and fears that they could turn into tumours once implanted. They have enormous potential because hESCs can be grown into any of the body’s 200 tissue types, unlike the stems cells isolated from adult tissues that have mostly been used in treatments until now.

In the most rigorous test of embryonic stems cells’ potential yet, six people with heart failure will be treated in France with a patch of immature heart cells made from hESCs, and 40 people with diabetes in the US will receive pouches containing immature pancreatic cells made from hESCs.

The hope is that the heart patch will help to regenerate heart muscle destroyed by heart attacks. Trials in monkeys showed that the patch could regenerate up to 20 per cent of the lost muscle within two months.

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