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Human stem cell science has come a long way in 20 years

In November of 1998, a developmental biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison named James Thomson described the first successful derivation and culturing of human embryonic stem cells in the journal Science. Now, a new paper is exploring how much stem cell science has grown in the time since it was first introduced 20 years ago.

The paper’s senior author, Tenneille Ludwig, is also the director of the stem cell bank at WiCell, a non-profit affiliate of UW-Madison that studies and distributes stem cells for research. “What is surprising is how far we’ve come and how fast we’ve gotten there,” said Ludwig.

Stem cells have the capacity for replication under the right conditions, which has fueled the prospect of an unlimited supply of replacement cells for ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, spinal cord injury and a host of other conditions.

Professor Tim Kamp is the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

“When human embryonic stem cells were discovered 20 years ago, researchers and the public were quick to realize the tantalizing promise that these cells provided for therapeutic applications,” said Professor Kamp.

“There was now a potential pathway to generate essentially any human cell type in the body in the laboratory and then use it to replace damaged or destroyed cells by disease such as beta cells in the pancreas in diabetes, dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s disease, and heart muscle cells after a heart attack.”

From its humble beginnings in just a few isolated labs, human stem cell science has exploded into a thriving global industry and has launched a new field of regenerative medicine.

The potential of clinical applications for stem cells has gained an increasing amount of attention over time. While trials have been proposed to treat everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s in the United States and abroad, no stem cell treatment has been approved yet by the FDA.

“If you’re looking for a proven embryonic or induced stem cell therapy, there isn’t one quite yet,” said Ludwig, noting that the timeline from the lab to the clinic is not very speedy or direct. “We know it takes a long time to go from a basic scientific discovery to the clinic.”

Regardless, the science of stem cells has advanced significantly. For example, scientists  are now able to direct the blank slate cells to become many of the cells found in the body, creating cells that could not otherwise be accessed, such as beating heart cells and dopaminergic neurons,.

“Now, after 20 years of ongoing research and development, we are seeing clinical trials emerging that are testing cellular products derived from embryonic stem cells for a variety of diseases including diabetes, ischemic heart disease, age-related macular degeneration, and more,” said Professor Kamp.

“Most of these trials are just the beginning safety studies, but the remarkable new regenerative medicine applications of human embryonic stem cells and their more recent cousins induced pluripotent stem cells are beginning to realize the promise for revolutionary new therapies first identified 20 years ago.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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