What if medicine could help you heal yourself, instead of putting a band-aid on a problem?
Regenerative medicine is a discipline of medicine focused on utilizing and optimizing natural self-healing processes. It includes things like organ transplants (both real and artificial), tissue engineering, and cellular therapies.
What is Regenerative Medicine? What is Stem Cell Therapy? Check out this guide to learn everything you need to know.
Dr. Kelley Mulhern
Let’s start at the very beginning. What does regeneration mean?
Every one of our bodies has innate healing processes. When we get a scrape or cut, our body repairs itself all on its own. Similarly, if we develop an illness, our bodies respond and get us back to good health.
In biology, regeneration refers to the process of restoration, renewal, and growth. These are all necessary to ensure that genomes, cells, organisms, and ecosystems are resilient to natural fluctuations or events that cause damage and disturbance.
Regeneration also refers to the process by which some organisms replace or restore lost or amputated body parts. It’s important to note that every species is capable of regeneration, from bacteria to humans.
However, organisms differ markedly in their ability to regenerate parts. A salamander can regenerate an amputated limb in several days.
Some organisms can even grow a whole new structure on the stump of the old one. This kind of total regeneration allows for whole organisms to dramatically replace substantial portions of themselves. If, for example, they’ve been cut in two, they’ll repair themselves.
Of course, all living things aren’t able to regenerate parts in this manner. In many cases, the stump of an amputated structure may simply heal over without replacement. This wound healing is, itself, a type of regeneration at the tissue level of organization.
As we can see, the regeneration of body parts is a rather common phenomenon in nature.
No Life Without Regeneration
Regeneration is one central aspect of the general process of growth. It’s a critical attribute of all living systems. Without it, there simply could be no life.
The maintenance and existence of any organism depend on the incessant turnover by which all organs and tissues consistently renew themselves. The surface of a cut heals over, a bone fracture knits, and cells replace themselves as they need to.
Different parts of the body require different levels and speeds of regeneration. The human heart, for example, loses all regenerative capabilities after we’re born, which is why heart attacks are so catastrophic – cardiac cells don’t reproduce.
Skin cells are a different story. The epidermal cells produced in the basal layer may take several weeks to reach the outer surface and be sloughed off. In the lining of the intestines, the life span of an individual epithelial cell will only be a few days.
What is Regenerative Medicine?
Regenerative medicine is a distinct major advancement in medical treatment which is based on the principles of stem cell therapy technology and tissue engineering.
The good news is that after many years of research, this approach is beginning to represent a valuable treatment option for chronic diseases and acute injuries.
Despite this, it’s still a little-known field of research.
Regenerative medicine can be described as an interdisciplinary field. It seeks to develop the science and tools that are capable of helping to repair or replace damaged or diseased human cells or tissues to restore healthy function.
It’s an exciting field of medicine that’s currently seeing massive growth and expansion. It holds the promise of revolutionizing treatment in the 21st century.
Another way to describe it is to say that regenerative medicine is a branch of medicine that aims to develop methods to replace, repair, and regrow damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues.
Regenerative medicine is an umbrella term that includes the generation and use of stem cell therapy, tissue engineering, and the production of artificial organs.
History of Regenerative Medicine
You may be surprised to find out that regenerative medicine isn’t a new concept. In fact, humans have been using forms of it for many years.
Remember that the first skin graft was in 1870 and the first successful kidney transplant was in 1950. Both organ transplants and autografts (grafts taken from your own tissue) are also considered regenerative medicine because they seek to rejuvenate, replace, and regenerate the body.
It’s clear that long before the term ‘regenerative medicine’ was coined, humans were realizing the effects of medicinal intervention. The Ancient Civilizations of Sumeria, Egypt, China, India, and South America all pioneered medical techniques and discoveries that still influence the field today.
The term “regenerative medicine” is widely considered to be coined by William Haseltine during a 1999 conference on Lake Como. It’s reported that Haseltine was trying to describe an emerging field that combined pieces of knowledge from different subjects: tissue engineering (TE), cell transplantation, stem cell biology, nanotechnology, and biochemistry.
Historically, this term was found for the first time in a 1992 paper by Leland Kaiser, who listed the technologies which would impact the future of hospitals.
The Future of Regenerative Medicine
The aim of regenerative medicine is to prevent disease and suffering. The field seeks to replace the traditional concept in medicine that waits for the body to break down and then treats the symptoms. As we’ll explain further on in the article, regenerative medicine is restorative and relies on the body’s ability to heal itself.
In this way, it aims to keep people healthy and balanced overall. Instead of only focusing on fixing people, regenerative medicine looks to maintain health and wellness in various ways.
Types of Regenerative Medicine
Just like there are many kinds of regeneration, there are many different types of regenerative medicine. These include:
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP)
- Stem cells (autologous or allogenic)
Platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, is a treatment derived from a person’s own blood. It is a concentration of platelets, which are essential for blood clotting. Together, platelets and liquid plasma contain many different proteins and factors essential for cell recruitment, multiplication, and specialization in wound healing.
Exosomes are a complicated concept and a rising star in drug delivery. They’re extracellular vesicles produced in the endosomal compartment of most eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus contained in a membrane) and are responsible for shuttling genetic information and proteins between cells.
We’ll jump into stem cells in a moment, but first, it’s important to understand that stem cells fall into two categories: autologous and allogenic.
“Autologous” means from the same organism, while “allogeneic” is from a different organism. In transplant biology, an autologous donor is both the donor and the recipient, while an allogeneic donor and the recipient are two different people.
Thus, autologous stem cells are your own cells and allogeneic stem cells come from someone else.
What are Stem Cells?
In simple terms, stem cells are undifferentiated, or “blank,” cells. What this means is they’re capable of developing into cells that serve various functions in different parts of the body.
In contrast, differentiated cells can only serve a specific purpose in a specific organ. Most cells in the body are differentiated cells. For example, red blood cells are specifically designed to carry oxygen through the blood.
We all start out as only one cell. This cell is called a zygote, or a fertilized egg. The zygote first divides into two cells, then four cells, and keeps going. After a while, the cells will start to differentiate. At this point, they take on a specific function in a part of the body.
Undifferentiated cells have the ability to divide and make an indefinite number of copies of themselves. Other cells in the body can only replicate a limited number of times before they begin to break down. When a stem cell divides, it can either remain a stem cell or turn into a differentiated cell, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell.
Autologous Stem Cells
Autologous stem cells can be adipose-derived or bone marrow aspirate concentrate (BMAC).
Adipose tissue is a type of loose connective tissue primarily composed of fat cells. Adipose-derived stem cells initially seemed promising as a regenerative therapy because they can be repeatedly harvested with minimal invasiveness, unlike stem cells derived from bone marrow. However, the quantity and quality of our own stem cells decline as we age. Therefore, the results of adipose-derived stem cell treatments were disappointing to many. Furthermore, the FDA has sanctioned several clinics using adipose-derived stem cells.
BMAC is a fluid containing cells taken directly from bone marrow, which used to be one of the most commonly used sources of stem cells. But again, our stem cells decline as we age. In addition, a bone-marrow harvest can be a painful procedure that is not without risk. For some people who are extremely immune-compromised, this may be their only option. For a healthy individual, they will likely see better results with allogeneic cells.
Allogeneic Stem Cells
Allogeneic stem cells (stem cells harvested from a third-party donor) generally fall under four categories:
- Cord blood
- Wharton’s Jelly
Embryological allogeneic stem cells are among the most controversial types of stem cells. These are stem cells derived from embryos, usually harvested from eggs fertilized in vitro and then donated to medical research with the informed consent of donors (they are not harvested from embryos in a woman’s body). Today, embryological stem cells are used in limited research capacities — they have not been used for treatment since the 1980’s and 1990’s.
The human placenta and cord blood are rich in hematopoietic progenitor and hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). They give rise to all blood cell types and enrich mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are found in adult bone marrow.
Wharton’s Jelly is a gelatinous substance in the umbilical cord which protects the vein and arteries carrying oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. It can be harvested from the umbilical cord and differentiated into mature cells, making it the most potent source of stem cells we are currently aware of.
What is Stem Cell Research?
Since stem cells have the ability to turn into various other types of cells, researchers and scientists believe that they can be useful for understanding and treating diseases. Along with this, stem cells can be used to:
- research causes of genetic defects in cells
- research how diseases occur
- research why certain cells develop into cancer cells
- generate new cells in a laboratory to replace damaged organs or tissues
- correct parts of organs that are malfunctioning
- test new drugs for effectiveness and safety
At the end of the day, all regenerative medicine strategies depend on stimulating, harnessing, or guiding developmental or repair processes.
In line with this, stem cell therapy research plays a central role in regenerative medicine. Stem cells and derived products offer great promise for new medical treatments. Therefore, promoting stem cell therapy research, regenerative medicine, and advanced therapeutics more broadly is a priority in many countries.
Conditions Treated by Regenerative Medicine
What does regenerative medicine treat? More than you might realize.
For example, regenerative medicine has shown promise in treating musculoskeletal disorders and orthopedic issues from arthritis to partial ligament tears.
It has also shown promise in treating diabetic or chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (damage to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). The central nervous system is so complex that there is very little spontaneous regeneration, which is where regenerative medicine can bridge the gap.
Since regenerative medicine is all about regrowing cells and promoting healing, it’s also surprisingly helpful in anti-aging treatments, hair regrowth, and scar reduction. Our skin produces less collagen as we age, but with regenerative medicine, we can produce new collagen for younger-looking skin.
Finally, regenerative medicine has shown promise in sexual rejuvenation, treating conditions such as erectile dysfunction with stem cell therapy and PRP.
The Next Steps
Regenerative medicine is working to restore the structure and function of damaged tissues and organs. It is also working to create solutions for organs that become permanently damaged. The goal of this medicine is to find a way to cure previously untreatable diseases and injuries.
At the moment, scientific research is working to make treatments available for clinical use. This is good news for everyone who worries about chronic illnesses and serious injuries that cause them or their loved ones to suffer.
The good news is that patients dealing with pain, wounds that won’t heal or with damaged cartilage, muscles or ligaments can find relief with regenerative medicine therapies. After reading this article, you should have the answer to your question, what is regenerative medicine?
So, what are the next steps?
For more information about stem cell therapy or regenerative medicine, please contact us. We have a highly trained team of medical professionals who create customized treatment plans designed to help your body truly heal.