The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Dr. Benjamin Reubinoff explores the research his team at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem has conducted with stem cells including the use of stem cells to treat rats with Parkinson's disease.
Stem cells are immature unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. Under certain conditions, they can be induced to become mature cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are derived from early surplus human embryos (5-6 days after fertilization). The embryos used to derive these stem cells were created for infertility treatment purposes through in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and were donated to research when they were no longer needed for that purpose.

Human ES cells are unique in the universe since they can self-renew infinitely in culture yet still retain a normal genetic pattern, and also since they have a remarkable potential to develop into all cells and tissues of the human body.

The Potential of hESCs for Transplantation Therapy

Given their unique properties, hESCs are expected to have far- reaching applications in the study of early human development, the development of new drugs, and regenerative medicine. Human ES cell lines can serve as a renewable unlimited donor source of specialized human cells for transplantation therapy.

Human ES cell-derived mature cells could potentially be transplanted to restore tissue function in a wide range of human diseases that are associated with loss of cell function.

These conditions may include neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, Multiple Sclerosis, cerebrovascular accidents, spinal cord injuries, as well as heart failure, diabetes mellitus, and others. The number of patients that potentially could benefit from transplantation of hESCs is overwhelming. For example there are over 16 million patients worldwide with neurodegenerative disorders, and over 120 million diabetic patients. Moreover, transplantation of genetically modified hESCs may allow the transfer and expression of foreign genes in target organs in the course of gene therapy.

While the promise of hESCs for cell and gene therapy is remarkable, further extensive research and development are required to exploit their potential for regenerative medicine.

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