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Regenerating Health

The promising future of regenerative medicine

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The human body has the extraordinary ability to heal itself. Think of the way a wound closes or a broken bone mends. Regenerative medicine is a promising field that harnesses the power of natural healing to help the body repair, regenerate, and restore itself.

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What is it?

Regenerative medicine develops and applies methods to regrow, repair, or replace cells, organs, or tissues that have been impacted by disease, damage, defects, or aging. The approach goes far beyond symptom management by supporting the body in restoring or regaining normal function.

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Types of regenerative medicine

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Stem cell treatments

These are already in wide use for everything from cancer to blood-related diseases. Under the right conditions, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells, which become either new stem cells or specialized cells with a more specific function, such as blood, brain, heart muscle, or bone cells. This can occur in the body or in a lab. The ability to generate new cell types is unique to stem cells.

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Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections

This treatment uses a person’s own blood cells for wound healing, joint or tendon injury, and addressing male pattern baldness. Platelet-rich plasma consists of plasma, or the liquid portion of blood, and platelets, which can stimulate cell reproduction and tissue regeneration or healing. To create platelet-rich plasma, a person’s own blood is placed in a centrifuge that rapidly spins, separating components from the platelets to concentrate them within the plasma. The substance is injected into a specific area, such as an injured tendon or areas of the scalp needing increased hair growth.

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Prolotherapy

Proliferation therapy is the injection of a sugar or saline solution, commonly into ligaments but also into muscles and tendons, to stimulate the healing process through the growth of new cells. It’s thought that the body sends immune cells to the injection area, which helps repair damaged soft tissue and reduce pain.

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Cartilage regeneration

While not a treatment in itself, tissue engineering, stem cell therapy, and PRP therapy are all being explored for the regeneration of cartilage, notably to treat sports injuries and osteoarthritis. Through the injection of healthy cells into an affected area (often the knee), it is theorized that cartilage may be able to regenerate.

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Great hopes for regenerative medicine

Regenerative medicine is also being used to treat diabetes, repair brain injury tissue, and improve immune system functioning. It is even being studied for whole organ regeneration.

“We have great hopes,” says Fabio Rossi, scientific director of the BC Regenerative Medicine Network. “Bone marrow transplants are regenerative because they regenerate the blood system using stem cells, and we have been doing those for around 30 years now, but there is a whole other list of regenerative approaches that are going to come online in the next 10 years that are going to be revolutionary.”

As an example, he points to research from the UBC Faculty of Medicine and Vancouver Coastal Health, supported by Canada’s Stem Cell Network, into the world’s first genetically engineered cell replacement therapies for diabetes. The novel investigative treatment involves a small implant containing millions of pancreatic cells derived from genetically engineered stem cells that could enable people with the disease to produce insulin.

“It’s heading toward the ability to replace cell types that are right now not replaceable,” Rossi says. Consider the way healthy heart cells can be injected into the injured heart muscle of someone with heart disease, which can then repair that muscle. “There are some well-funded companies working hard at making this a clinical reality, and it’s very promising,” Rossi says.

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Is it “natural”?

Molecular, cellular, and tissue processes allow for the body to regenerate naturally in a variety of ways. Humans regrow hair and skin, and cuts heal. After a fracture, new tissue knits pieces of bone back together. When a portion of the liver is removed or destroyed, the remaining part grows to the original size, allowing the organ to function as it did before.

Whether regenerative medicine can be considered “natural,” however, is open to debate. While the field builds on the body’s self-healing methods to restore, maintain, or improve human function, it involves certain interventions. “You are using cells that are manipulated in a way that is not natural,” Rossi says.

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Ethical considerations

Embryonic stem cells are obtained from early-stage embryos used in in-vitro fertilization treatments that were never implanted in women’s uteruses. Donated with informed consent from patients, the stem cells can live and grow in special solutions in test tubes or petri dishes in laboratories. This source is controversial because of differing beliefs about what constitutes the beginning of human life. Adult stem cells may not be as versatile and durable as embryonic stem cells.

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Accessibility

As regenerative medicine evolves, it’s becoming increasingly accessible.

People with male pattern baldness can easily access PRP injections. There are clinics across Canada and the US that offer regenerative medicine services to treat arthritis, joint pain, muscle tears, tendon injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and more. Treatment centres abroad claim to offer regenerative medicine for those conditions as well as autism, lupus, and ALS, among many other conditions.

Rossi recommends exercising caution, however. It’s early days yet, and comprehensive clinical trials to back up so many claims are lacking.

“You can find uses of PRP for everything,” he says. “We cannot exclude there are positive or beneficial effects, but I doubt it’s the amazing thing that cures everything. Most marketing that promises amazing results is not honest.”

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Regenerative medicine and the aging brain

Throughout people’s lives, their cells regenerate, but as part of the aging process, this ability gradually declines, particularly in the brain. Some research suggests that a type of stem cell in the brain, referred to as “quiescent,” can be rejuvenated. This research shows great promise for patients suffering from brain injury or neurodegenerative diseases. Dormant stem cells in these patients may have the potential to become activated for repair work.

Maintaining a healthy stem cell pool in the brain throughout aging could be critical in improving overall brain health and reducing the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Neural stem cells found in the hypothalamus have been found to reverse aging. Replenishing neural stem cells in the hypothalamus can in turn support a healthy aging process. Vitamin D, resveratrol, and curcumin have shown evidence in increasing the proliferation of neural stem cells.

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What’s next?

Research is actively taking place into a vast range of areas that regenerative medicine could treat.

Areas of research

Examples for treatment 

genetic disorders

using genetically modified stem cells for Fabry disease

blood

aiding in recovery from radiation and chemotherapy

joints

using stem cells for knee osteoarthritis

burns

using stem cells to improve wound healing

critical care

using stem cells for septic shock treatment

Other areas of regenerative medicine research involve conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy.

Boost stem cells

Research shows that stem cells thrive in certain environments. Think of promoting stem cell proliferation in the body as a form of preventive medicine to boost health.

Exercise

Aerobic exercise appears to help stem cells turn into bone instead of fat, while physical activity has been found to activate stem cells.

Cut back on sugar intake

Reducing sugar allows stem cells to use energy more effectively.

Reduce alcohol consumption

Long-term alcohol intake can suppress stem cell activities. Chronic binge drinking has a negative impact on stem cell proliferation because of the effects of ethanol.

Consider intermittent fasting

Research suggests the number of stem cells in the blood increases with caloric restriction.

Amazing opportunities of regenerative medicine

One of the goals of regenerative medicine is the ability to form new body parts from a patient’s own cells and tissues. This would eliminate or reduce the global demand for organs and complications that can occur from organ rejection.

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