We’re living longer thanks to medical science as it has been developing over the millennium. In ancient times, mankind was helpless in the face of illness and injury, especially in the case of epidemics. The Plague or Black Death of 14th Century Europe wiped out one third of the population, while Spanish influenza in 1918 claimed approximately 50 million lives, more than lost in World War I.
It was not until the twentieth Century that we have seen major progress in the way man battles disease. Two major discoveries helped usher in these changes – penicillin and corticosteroids. Alexander Fleming observed that a plate with nutrients covered with bacteria set aside and forgotten for several weeks had developed a mold growth that destroyed the bacteria. This phenomenon worthy of further investigation, lead to the discovery of antibiotics isolated from molds in1940.
The history of corticosteroids was somewhat different. Doctors noticed that women suffering from hepatitis who were also pregnant had temporary relief from inflammation in their joints. Scientists pondered over what was happening in the bodies of these pregnant women to bring about a transient cessation of their rheumatoid symptoms and at times, even asthma. After a few years, the substances causing these effects were discovered and purified. Hormones from supra-renal glands (the adrenals) were responsible for these changes. Today corticosteroid hormones are widely in use totreat those suffering from pneumonia, inflammatory joint and muscle diseases as well as asthma.
Circulatory and heart diseases are a major cause of adult illness and death. But tremendous advances have been made since the 1960’s to harness their devastating and deadly consequences. Mortality rates have plunged by 62% over the last 50 years. This is due to the attainment of knowledge and control over risk factors for heart and circulatory illness –hypertension, elevated cholesterol, and education about lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol abuse, high fat diets and inactivity which lead to these illnesses. Major improvements in the rapid response to symptoms of heart attack or stroke, open heart surgeries, bypasses, catheterization and therapies with specific medications as well as other new treatments being discovered and applied in the highly specialized world of cardiology and vascular medicine have and continue to bring about great progress.
In the past ten years, the life expectancy in developed countries has increased by approximately five hours each day. In effect, we awaken every day to a 29-hour day from which we are using up 24 hours now and putting away the rest for later.
Today as we continue to seek new therapies and methods for treating illness, our attention has focused on stem cell research. From these cells arise the tissues of muscles, the liver, bones and the brain. Our hopes lie in the suggestion that these stem cells introduced into tissue offer the possibility of curing illnesses and even slowing down the processes of aging. The use of therapies developed with these specialized cells in specific organs or parts of the body may potentially lead to an improvement in their condition; for example treating a diseased liver, or cardiac or leg arteries with pathological changes. Future treatment of liver, heart or circulatory diseases among many others, may be conducted in the future using regenerative therapies, a new branch of medicine.
Currently the search is on for sources of stem cells. Stem cells are distributed throughout the body, but not in large quantities. There is however, a relatively large amount found in bone marrow and they are present in embryonic fluid and the placenta as well as the umbilical cord of newborns. Stem cells are not generative cells. They aren’t present in sperm or the ovaries and they do not come from embryos. This major discovery about stem cells should not pose a great problem for ethicists to resolve about the raging debate over stem cells.
Research facilities in the U.S. and Japan compete actively in the field of medical regenerative therapies. The Japanese have created a stem cell bank, and in southern California’s coast near San Diego a consortium for Regenerative Medicine has formed and is actively seeks leading scientists throughout the world, awarding grants and funding their research in anticipation of breakthroughs in this field..
However, the road to success in this new area of medicine is fraught with difficulties and dangers. In these miraculous cells there lurks a deadly potential for uncontrolled cancerous growth. Thus more research is imperative.
Much will be discovered in the first clinical trials begun in 2008. Those paralyzed with spinal cord injuries or patients with atherosclerosis obliterans (occlusive sclerotic disease of the lower extremities) threatened by amputation anxiously await the results of these trials. In Poland last year, ten patients were treated using regenerative therapy for such problems. Each received an injection of stem cells into their legs. Six have had radical improvements in their condition, while four suffered a decline.
We shall see in the near future, just how rapidly and effectively this new area of medical science will develop, perhaps bringing about the slowing of the aging process or reversing its effects entirely. Indeed, the dream of Faust – a return to youth may be possible, without the diabolical services of Mephistopheles.
Dr. Elzbita Ulanowska
Translated by Zofia Wisniewski