Stem cell research is exciting on many levels and provides real hope for treating an assortment of serious diseases and injuries in the future, but another potential positive of stem cells such as iPS cells is their use in producing modeling human tissues and organs to model diseases.
A third positive, but often overlooked potential outcome from stem cells that builds on the modeling function is the focus of today’s blog post: the potential of human stem cells to significantly reduce the need of researchers for experimental animal models.
If scientists can use stem cells to build mini versions of human livers, hearts, eyes, and many other organs and tissues (e.g. we just saw this done most recently amazingly enough with micro human brain-like structures!), these efforts would yield ideal tissue tools for testing new drugs for safety and function.
Such tests could collectively be done millions of times for thousands of drugs before any animal testing took place at all. I believe that this approach would in turn reduce the need for millions of research animals such as mice and rats as well as others. It may also speed up getting drugs to patients.
Realistically, animal testing would of course still be needed to study how drugs (including stem cell drugs) behave in a transplant/treatment context in an actual animal, but I believe the net result of stem cells will be reduced animal numbers used in research in the future.
Using specific human tissues (e.g. a human mini-liver in a dish to test a new liver drug, human heart tissue in a dish to test a novel heart drug, etc.) may even be more accurate and relevant for the human clinical context than only using animals.
Already we are seeing human cell and tissue models in a dish made from patients with specific diseases such as Alzheimer’s that could be great tools to study why those diseases happen and how to treat them.
To be clear, I am a firm supporter of the need for animal models and research using them has saved millions of lives, but if we can greatly reduce the numbers of animals needed via stem cells, I find that prospect very encouraging and positive.