Despite major progress made in medicine, current treatments are increasingly unable to meet patient needs in a wide range of diseases. As our population ages, medicine is confronted with a great challenge of treating more complex diseases and injuries. Most current medical practices only manage patients’ symptoms with medications or devices.
In order to confront the needs of patients with conditions beyond repair, research has transitioned into the field of regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine is the practice of delivering cells and cell products to diseased or damaged tissue. In diseases like cystic fibrosis, the lungs and pancreas accumulate damage due to thick mucus secretions and chronic infections. The current treatment of antibiotics, airway clearance, mucus alteration, CFTR modulation, and pancreatic enzymes only help to manage symptoms. Even with the current work to correct the defective CFTR protein that leads to the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, there is insufficient evidence to conclude if new medications will halt the progression of the disease. However, regenerative medicine offers the possibility of controlling the development of this damage.
Stem cells these days are perhaps a trigger word for discussion and debate, but their role is critical for regenerative medicine. A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to develop into many different types of cells. Through a process known as differentiation, a single stem cell could turn into cells ranging from cartilage to heart muscle. Each type of stem cell has its own unique qualities, with some having a greater ability to differentiate than others. Adult stem cells are present throughout the body, with their primary role to repair tissues. However, the process is not so simple. In certain instances, the mechanism for tissue repair is disrupted, and the adult stem cells cannot undergo their repairing process. This results in the damage and scarring that occurs in diseases like CF; cystic fibrosis was given its name due to the fibrous connective tissue and cysts seen in the pancreas. The fibrous, scarred tissues formed have different mechanical properties and cannot function like healthy tissue.
Current research is focused on how to prevent the scarring that may occur from chronic damage. One major focus of regenerative medicine would be to incorporate a stem cell treatment to enhance tissue repair. In cystic fibrosis, these practices could be used to aid in repair after a pulmonary exacerbation or to heal the pancreas and help prevent cystic fibrosis related diabetes. Advancements in stem cell therapy have even allowed burn victims to heal their skin with reduced evidence of the traumatic event.
Many researchers across the globe are trying to deliver similar practices to many tissues and organs throughout the body. However, stem cells’ potential is not limited to tissue repair. Researchers are also using stem cells to help regenerate entire organs with the vision of changing the status of organ transplants. Due to the nature of cystic fibrosis, these treatments and tissue engineering practices would provide a much needed therapy to this chronic illness. The future is bright; regenerative medicine is one of the fastest growing fields of medical research, with each year providing more treatments that pave the way for those with diseases like cystic fibrosis.