Stem cells are not invincible and therefore not likely to be the magic wand in the world of medicine, but they may be a great clue in finding what will be, a research professor explained on Thursday.
As part of a stem cell seminar series, Barbara Driscoll, Ph. D presented a lecture in the U Building titled “The Impact of Aging on Stem Cells.” The presentation covered basic information about stem cells, the aging process of mammals and how the two are so crucial to the next great discovery in medicine.
Driscoll is an assistant professor of Developmental Biology at USC and a researcher at the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “We’re really kind of stuck. Is aging a disease or is it simply the platform for disease?” she said.
“There is no standard genetic program for aging,” Driscoll said. “Everyone gets old in a different way.”
Even organs have different hierarchies of stem cells and therefore age differently. The lung, which is the focus of Driscoll’s research, hits peak function at age 25 and begins its decline. There is no way to recapture lost lung function, but Driscoll said “people can lose 60 to 70 percent lung capacity and still be fine,” as long as they aren’t trying to run from wild animals.
Current lab testing is geared toward determining if stem cell therapy can prevent the premature aging of lung stem cells and/or repair already damaged stem cells to regain lung function.
“Researchers hope they can train stem cells into becoming specific cells so that those specialized cells can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people,” according to an article on the Mayo Clinic’s website. “People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis. Stem cells could also be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant medicine.”
The aging process, Driscoll said, is brought on by “oxidative stress” where free radicals attack stem cell DNA and the body goes into a state of inflammation. Stem cells go into overload and simply arrest.
Driscoll also said that damage to stem cells that occurs during development (the time before reproductive age) can also have a profound impact later in life, like premature aging and disease.
“Everything that happened to you during development and your life experience affects how you age,” Driscoll said. With this knowledge, she said. “It’s even more important to stay healthy early in life, if you want to be healthy later in life.”