Stem cells hold out enormous revolutionary promise in regenerative medicine. The array of potential applications continues to grow as research overcomes ever more hurdles from the sourcing of cells to the actual application processes. The teen years of the 21st century could be the decade that stem cells deliver on their promise.

What is changing?

Stem cell research and treatments have been in the news recently, for successes rather than controversies. A model, who suffered facial burns and eye damage in an acid attack, has recently undergone cornea treatment using stem cells from a donor with significant success and some recovery of vision. An early phase clinical research trial on treatment safety, which used stem cells injected into hearts damaged by heart attacks, not only demonstrated that the procedure was safe, but that significant levels of tissue regeneration resulted. Such headlines may soon be less and less frequent, as the potential of stem cells begins to materialise and becomes less newsworthy and more mainstream, as the stream of positive research results continues.

New approaches to harvesting stem cells are also critical to increasing the potential of the procedures, and in the process overcoming one of the main sources of controversy. Harvesting blood cells from umbilical cords is becoming a major market in its own right, providing as it does a non-invasive solution to stem cell production. Breast milk likewise is proving a potentially reliable source. ‘Turning’ patients’ own cells into effective stem cells is also increasingly viable. New research on mice indicates that old stem cell quality can be improved by ‘rejuvenating them’, by growing them on younger mice’s genetic base. At the human level, gene therapy has been used to remove a genetic fault in stem cells for the first time so that the patient’s own stem cells could potentially be used in genetic therapy.

Why is this important?

Three major reports in recent months may indicate that the long lead times for development and research are beginning to pay off

Market forecasts for stem cell therapies are hard to come by, but the appearance of three major reports in recent months may indicate that the long lead times for development and research are beginning to pay off – albeit with 5 or 10 year time horizons still: one indicates that 2012 could see stem cell technology markets reach $1 billion.  A much earlier market assessment estimated that by 2016 the stem cell therapeutic market would be worth in the region of $8.5 billion.  Suffice it to say the potential returns are significant, if slow in coming.

Many of the potential applications – heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease – cost health care systems the world over dearly. The incidence of and the cost of treating heart disease, for example, is expected to rise significantly in the next two decades as a result of ageing populations and lifestyle factors. Those costs could reach $800 billion in the USA alone. Even a 1% saving would be a significant amount, if stem cells treatment can genuinely improve recovery and therefore reduce the need for ongoing treatment.


Then there is the £200,000 burger!  Privately sponsored research in the Netherlands aims to produce a lab-grown burger using stem cells, which is fit for preparation by a Michelin star chef and consumption by an unnamed celebrity taster by October 2012.  But revolutionising food production is a whole different story and opportunity.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.