Can Stem Cell Research Be Used For Addiction Treatment?
03/17/20: Addiction RecoveryStem cell research has been an extremely controversial point of conversation in the past decade. No matter your moral or ideological standpoint on the issue, it’s hard to deny the healing properties and benefits of stem cells, our body’s natural materials. But can these healing properties help people struggling with addiction too? Since addiction is caused by a degeneration of the brain, resulting in subsequent degeneration of the body, and stem cells can be used to regenerate and restructure, it would make sense to examine the connection further. Studies are being done on the potential uses of stem cells to curb addiction, which we will talk about further in this article.
What are stem cells?Simply put, stem cells are cells that can grow into pretty much any type of tissue in the body. They can be found in embryos, umbilical cord blood, adult blood, or adult bone marrow. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells can divide and multiply to form more cells called daughter cells. From there, these daughter cells can either become new stem cells on their own, or be modified to turn into other types of cells with more specific functioning, such as blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle cells, bone cells, and so on. These are very unique, as no other cell in the human body can naturally generate new cell types.
Why is stem cell research so controversial?There have been a lot of questions raised about the ethics of stem cell use, particular regarding embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are extracted from early-stage embryos, AKA an undeveloped human offspring. While these cells are extracted extremely early on in the human development process, the fact that these cells are derived from a potential human being can get a little seedy for some. To combat any sort of misuse, the National Institutes of Health created guidelines for human stem cell research in 2009, which outline how embryonic stem cells can and cannot be used in research. They explicitly state that these cells may only be extracted from embryos created by in vitro fertilization, and may only be used when the embryo is no longer needed. Thus, the embryos may only be used if the family participating in the in vitro process consents to the cells being used for this process.
Why can’t adult stem cells just be used?Adult stem cells can certainly be effective for many purposes, however they have not proven themselves to be as versatile and resilient as embryonic stem cells. They may not be able to be engineered to produce as wide a range of cell types, which limits what they can be used for. Additionally, adult stem cells are also more likely to have abnormalities due to environmental factors like toxins or errors occurring in cell replication. Fortunately however, they have been deemed to be much more viable for regenerative medicine in the last few years than scientists originally thought.
How can stem cells be used to heal our bodies?Stem cells alone can’t simply be injected into the problem area and go to work. There is a lot of intervention on the part of scientists to engineer the cells to the point where they can actually regenerate tissue. Cells called fibroblasts are extracted from the patient’s skin and reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells, which can be scientifically manipulated into various other types of tissue cells. When you introduce these newly created, healthy cells into tissue that has been degenerating, it can help the tissue return to normal functioning. In Arizona stem cells are increasingly popularity by the month as Doctors and healthcare providers are realizing the importance of this advanced type of medical treatment.
How can stem cells enhance and inform the way we treat addiction?Stem cells can do more than just restore tissue. There are a variety of ways that stem cells can teach us more about how addiction works in the body and the best ways to tackle it. Here are some other uses for stem cells:
- Generate healthy cells to replace unhealthy cells. This is the biggest advancement that stem cells offer, which we touched on earlier. It’s no secret that addiction can temporarily and even permanently alter and damage the brain. Since stem cells allow scientists to create healthy brain cells (and other types of tissue cells), these can be used to heal the parts of the body that addiction harms.
- Help us understand how addiction occurs. By observing how stem cells mature into a wide variety of other tissue cells, researchers and doctors can get a better idea of how substance abuse disorders and even mental health conditions develop on a micro level.
- Test drugs for safety and effectiveness. It can be difficult to run drug trials because of the danger it can pose to live human subjects. Large groups of people must volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way in order to ensure a drug’s safety and effectiveness for the general population. While this is an extremely necessary step to approving drugs for human consumption, there’s no denying that if the drug is not ready for use in humans, it can cause damage to test subjects. By testing the effects of the drugs on stem cells, we can minimize potential for harm to living human beings. For example, brain cells could be engineered to test a new medication for addiction, or even test an existing substance for its effects on the brain. These tests could show us what kinds of positive effects the drug had, or more importantly, if there was any harm done to the cells.
What stem cell studies have shown us so farWhile a lot of research is still in the works, there have been some studies that can give us an idea of what we can expect to see with stem cell treatment for addiction. Addictive drugs such as alcohol, opioids, amphetamines, etc have been shown to have an undeniable negative impact on the brain, especially the hippocampus. Evidence suggests that altered hippocampal neurogenesis is heavily associated with neuropsychological disorders, namely addiction. Mesenchymal stem cells derived from bone marrow have been identified as being the best candidate for stem cell therapies, which is wonderful news, as informed consent can be given to donate these kinds of cells, cutting out a lot of the ethical issues we discussed earlier. A study done in 2017 at the University of Chile found that injecting mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) into rats with alcohol dependence resulted in a drastic reduction of the rats’ chronic consumption of alcohol. However, intracerebral injections into human beings isn’t an ideal method, and MSCs are large molecules that would have difficulty reaching the brain when injected intravenously. The next study sought to combat this by reducing the size of the MSCs by up to 75 percent, which allows them to be injected intravenously as they can more easily reach the brain at this reduced size. To test this, these smaller MSCs were injected intravenously in the rats. The results were amazing — within 48 hours of a single treatment, the rats had reduced their alcohol consumption by 90 percent! Human trials are still needed to confirm whether or not this IV method will be as successful in people, but the future looks promising. And if this method is successful in treating alcohol addiction, it is likely that it can be applied to almost any kind of substance addiction, and perhaps even addictions to harmful activities like pornography and gambling as well!
The future of stem cells and addictionStem cell treatments and regenerative therapies have already been approved for treatment, such as bone marrow cell transplants to treat leukemia and sickle cell anemia. Scientists in Japan have even begun clinical trials in which Parkinson’s patients have adult stem cells injected into their brain to see if normal functioning can be restored. Unfortunately, a lot of these treatments are far from being approved for clinical use, though the future looks very promising. For that reason, if you are struggling with addiction, it is crucial that you take action as soon as possible. You can’t wait for a miracle treatment that may be a decade or more away from being accessible, when there are effective and convenient treatment options for you right outside your front door. While current addiction treatment programs aren’t a “quick fix” solution, they are effective and they have been very successful in helping patients achieve lifelong sobriety. It will take time and effort on your part, but you will learn things along the way and find lasting peace within yourself that no miracle treatment could ever provide.
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