How many times have you seen a news story about a scientific breakthrough that begins with something like, “It may seem like science fiction, but it’s really true …”?
Here in Southwest Florida a science-fiction “dream” is coming true: patients are being treated with stem cells for conditions ranging from heart disease to Parkinson’s, from pulmonary emphysema to diabetes. And more.
While I can’t take credit for this development, or for the research that has led to it, I am pleased that something I wrote about in science-fiction novels such as “Brothers” (1996) and its enlarged and updated version, “The Immortality Factor” (2009), is now entering clinical practice.
At least two local medical organizations, Rejuvenare LLC in Naples and The Alliance in Bonita Springs, are offering stem-cell therapies. Some of the treatments are available in their local facilities, although for others patients must go overseas because the U.S. federal government has not yet approved that particular type of stem-cell treatment.
These therapies do not require embryonic stem cells. The stem cells come from the patient’s own body. As one of the practicing physicians, Dr. Zannos G. Grekos, pointed out at a recent seminar, doctors have been taking stem-cell samples from patients’ bodies for many years, when they do bone-marrow extractions. The effective agent in bone marrow are the stem cells that the bone marrow manufactures.
Right here in Southwest Florida, to cite one example, patients are being treated with stem cells for peripheral arterial disease. This is a condition that bothers me.
The blood vessels in the legs atrophy or clog, leading to pain, impaired blood flow, and — in the worst instances — amputation of the leg. Patients are treated with their own stem cells, which help their bodies to build new blood vessels. The pain is lessened, blood flow greatly improved and there’s no need for amputation.
Typically, the medical team will extract a sampling of stem cells from the patient. This is about as intrusive as giving a blood sample. By using the patient’s own stem cells, there is no problem of rejection later on, as there is when organs or tissues from a donor are grafted into the patient.
The stems cells are sent to a laboratory overseas, where they are made to multiply, then they are returned and injected into the patient. Much of the work that is not yet approved in the U.S. is done at up-to-date medical facilities in the Dominican Republic.
Once injected into the patient, the stem cells build the types of cells the patient’s body requires. New blood vessels. New lung tissue for those suffering from emphysema or other pulmonary ailments. New nerve tissue.
The treatments are not miracles. They offer improvement in the patient’s condition, not out-and-out cures. But many Southwest Florida patients have been helped by stem-cell therapy, where the medical profession had run out of other options. Patients who were told they would soon die have been returned to useful, healthful lives by stem-cell therapy.
And this is only the beginning. Stem cells promise to open a new era of medicine, where many different kinds of diseases or injuries can be successfully treated — without major surgery or massive doses of drugs that have undesirable side effects.
Will we see, one day, a world in which a child who has lost an arm in an accident will be able to regrow the arm, thanks to stem-cell therapy? A world where dreaded diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and even cancer are treatable — curable — through stem-cell treatments?
I believe we will. The first steps are being taken today, and they will be followed by more and better therapies using stem cells. Political and moral opposition to using embryonic stem cells has been circumvented; now the major barriers to progress are the need for more research and better understanding.
Bureaucratic delays will remain for a while longer. But inevitably, as the effectiveness of stem-cell therapies is documented in patient after patient, even those barriers will crumble.
It may seem like science fiction today, but stem-cell therapy will be commonplace tomorrow.
Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” a novel that predicted the advent of stem-cell therapy. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.