A different approach to science and medicine
The medical toolkit is incomplete. Doctors can prescribe medicines to decrease pain or lessen symptom severity. Surgeons can remove or bypass injured tissues. Patients can survive for years using pacemakers, insulin, and other methods for managing their conditions. However, people suffering from many injuries and illnesses face challenges because their bodies simply no longer function correctly, or due to genetic conditions, never did. Despite a century’s worth of progress, most available treatments do not restore the body’s ability to function on its own. That’s where regenerative medicine comes in.
Regenerative medicine will work differently. Using what we know about how cells and tissues develop, scientists, engineers, and clinicians are creating treatments that restore function by repairing, replacing, or rebuilding parts of the body. In some cases, this might entail boosting the body’s natural ability to heal itself using its own stem cell populations. In other cases, patients might receive treatment in the form of cells grown outside of the body that are transplanted to specific target organs. Going forward, it might even be possible to replace whole organs with new ones grown in the laboratory. Because they rely on restoring function, these treatments will be longer lasting than treatments that focus on symptoms only.
Stem cells are cells with the ability to divide many times and to give rise to the specialized cells that do the body’s work. Some stem cells, especially the ones found in early embryos, can develop into a wide variety of cell types. Other kinds of stem cells, especially those found in adult tissues, make limited kinds of cells (blood or skin, for example). Learning how stem cells renew and change will be foundational for regenerative medicine. Learn more about stem cells.
Regenerative medicine is an exciting approach that will rely on a deep understanding of cell biology and collaborations across disciplines. The Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM) is working at the forefront of these fields to break new scientific ground and move toward the future described above.
Are these kinds of treatments available now?
At this time, the only stem cell-based products that are Food and Drug Administration-approved for use in the United States consist of blood-forming stem cells (hematopoietic progenitor cells) derived from cord blood. While stem cell biology is an active area of research at Penn and other universities, no other treatments have yet been proven safe and effective through clinical trials. The FDA provides updated information about stem cells on its website. More information about stem cell treatments can be found in this patient guide from the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), a professional body for researchers in the stem cell field.