From lab-grown organs, to editing embryos and reversing ageing. What will the future of stem cells look like?

Technology is turning the wildest of imaginations into reality. With the tools we have today, it is already possible to edit embryos, eat meat grown in a lab and cure an ever growing number of diseases using stem cell therapy. These groundbreaking changes are challenging society’s ethical and social norms in a profoundly new way.

At a recent webinar by the Singularity University, US researcher Dr. Tiffany Vora, talked about the limitless opportunities created by stem cell research.

Back in 2006, a breakthrough discovery by Japanese prof. Yamanaka and his team laid the foundations of the modern stem cell science. They discovered that turning on four specific genes in a cell, they could make a stem cell out of any human cell, what is known as “induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells (iPSCs).

Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery, which in 2012 earned him the Nobel Prize, led to a new-level research and products in the industry.

Dr. Vora gave en example with a recently published study where scientists turned human iPS cells into neurons and then implanted them into monkeys who suffered from a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. They notices that those neurons were able to mitigate the disease symptoms.

One of the major concerns in the industry, and the reason why stem cell trials take so long, is the need to track patients over a long period of time after the therapy and make sure stem cells don’t cause cancer. The fascinating thing about the monkeys’ therapy was that researchers followed them for two years and not a single one of them had their stem cells cause cancer.

Companies like Denali Therapeutics, Asterias Biotherapeutics, BrainStorm and others are all dedicated to developing therapies for highly debilitating neurodegenerative conditions.

Another exciting field is the possibility of using stem cell therapies to reverse ageing. In a related experiment, scientists injected stem cells derived from cardiac cells into old rats and found out that the animals were rejuvenated.

Even though it’s quite early stage, some of the wealthiest people, including fashion designer Peter Nygard, have used stem cell therapies to fight ageing, claiming they were seeing results.

In a study published in Nature in July 2017, researchers said they had been able to reverse ageing in mice by adding fresh stem cells to the hypothalamus. Scientists had previously noted that ageing in started with a substantial loss of these hypothalamic cells.

Today there are a host of companies are using stem cell therapies, regenerative medicine, bioinformatics to extend human life-span. They include Calico, Human Longevity, Centagen, Biotime and many others.

A promising stem cell application is also what scientists call “organoids”, essentially organs produced in a dish used to test how different therapies affect a certain organ.

Imagine using your own stem cells to replicate an organ to see how it respond to a certain drug before actually taking the drug.

One of the obstacles before stem cell research is the fact that it’s shrouded in numerous ethical considerations. Technology already makes it possible to achieve results
Let’s look at the question of editing cells in an embryo, for example. Opinions are split about whether it is “right” to edit cells in an embryo that grows to become a human. Currently stem cell experiments with a human embryo are not possible because you scientists need to create and then destroy an embryo.

Back in 2015, Chinese researchers sparked heated debates when they said they had used the CRISPR technology to edit a human embyro and modify specific disease-causing genes. The scientists said they had used “non-viable” embryos obtain from a fertility clinic, ones that could not result in a live birth.

Two years later, earlier in September, a team of UK scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London said they had successfully edited the genome of human embryos donated by volunteer couples. Their findings are expected to have large-scale implications for further fertility research, which so far has largely relied on animal embryos, primarily mice.

Some experts argue that organoids may hold the answer to such controversial questions.

“[…] if you can use human cells and mouse cells in a dish in a way that they could never grow to be a human, then you have the ability to get those really fundamental insights, Dr. Vora explains. She added that we need to start thinking of such issues because with today’s capabilities, we are able to perform procedures like embryo editing which would have broad and lasting implications.

Nevertheless, currently there are numerous organizations offering different types of stem cell therapies. Some of them are regulated and many more across the Globe are not. Аs of today, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 15 cell therapies, Tiffany Vora said, seven of which are in the blood stem cell field.

“There are more than 500 clinics that will sell you a stem-cell therapy right now, whether or not it’s actually been validated to be safe and to actually work, and I find that a bit alarming”, she said during her webinar presentation.

As technology and science advance, so does the business and funding in the area expanding the range of possibilities for consumers and investors watching the space.

In addition to a number of new areas of applications and types of stem cell therapies, the costs of research and treatment, related products and infrastructure, have come significantly down, allowing a growing number of individuals to take advantage of the latest innovations.

Although data varies, a number of reports foresee a significant growth in the industry in the next years from an estimated $12 billion globally in 2016, according to Mordor Intelligence. The figure reported by Grand View Research was $6.9 billion.

Mordor Intelligence research predicts the global market for stem cells to reach $26.6 billion by 202. As expected, the major applications of stem cells are regenerative medicine, alongside areas like neurology, orthopedics, oncology, cardiology, hematology drug discovery and development.

Although institutional investments in the space have increased significantly in the past years, analysts are still warning that they remain to a large extent volatile.

Some reports suggest that stem cell technology might be coming to an inflexion point in terms of companies valuation, despite some major disappointments for the first wave of investors in public companies the space, going back as early as the 80s.

Now, are witnessing a new uptake in investments with prominent names as Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates betting on the industry.

As recently as end of August 2017, US synthetic meat startup Memphis Meats announced it had raised $17 million Series A round from business tycoons like Gates, Branson and others to produce meat in a lab.

The so called “in vitro agriculture” is growing fast and looks promising but consumers still have many doubts about it.

“Imagine a future where in your kitchen you’ve got a bioreactor sitting on the kitchen counter and that bioreactor is full of cells like animal stem cells, cow stem cells. And you use that to grow meat that you eat without ever going to the butcher, without ever
going to the grocery store”, she said.

After the news about the investment, Richard Branson was quoted to have predicted that in 30 years we would “no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone”.

Finless Foods out of San Francisco (SF) is another company applying a similar approach to produce seafood. The company estimates that as much as 57% of the the fish stock globally has been depleted, while the consumption is constantly on the rise. To tackle this problem, the company plans to use a sample of a fish cell to clone and grow a variety of cultures of fish meat which they promise will be healthier and taste as real fish.

Perfect Day, in turn, aims to complete take the cow out of the dairy equation. The company is using genetic engineering to create milk “without the help of a single cow”, which is more nutritious, safe, and sustainable while tasting like the real thing. It claims that its innovative production process allows for 98% less water consumption, 91% less land usage and 84% less energy.

While many synthetic meat product prices are still more expensive than regular meat, they are much lower compared to their initial point. The first 3D printed burger cost $300,000 to produce a few years ago.

And in case eating out is your thing, you can now make a booking at the world’s first lab-grown meat restaurant Bistro In Vitro bistro. You can create your own menu or make a booking while seats are available. Ours is for April 20, 2029 in case you wanted to say “Hello”. Although it’s a fictitious restaurant, by then, science may have well advanced enough to be possible for most of the menu items to actually land on your plate.