Student Opinion: Stem Cell Treatment Advances Towards A Brighter Future

Cornea grafts can help to restore vision. Scientists in Japan are planning to graft tissue grown from stem cells
Cornea grafts can help to restore vision. Scientists in Japan are planning to graft tissue grown from stem cells
Cornea grafts can help to restore vision. Scientists in Japan are planning to graft tissue grown from stem cells. Credit: Burger/Phanie/Science Photo Library


By Kayla Ngai


Researchers at Osaka University led by Kohji Nishida, an ophthalmologist in Japan, were successfully able to treat corneal disease in four patients in a clinical trial that was provisionally approved in 2019. According to the Illinois Eye Center, “Corneal disease is a serious condition that can cause clouding, distortion, scarring, and eventually blindness.” Corneal disease is very common among the elderly, but quality tissue for corneal cells is rare to come by. I believe that Japan is making great efforts in medical advancements to help its aging population.

When CBS News covered this topic, they mentioned that the stem cell research was supposed “to help cope with the world’s oldest population.” However, in the article, they did not go into detail about Japan’s population. I feel that it is important to talk about Japan’s elderly because the trials and treatments would be mostly beneficial to them. For starters, a huge majority of Japan’s population is the elderly (being about 65 years or older). This means that their population is dwindling and many members of their society are suffering from degenerative diseases

Due to the problems that arise with aging, taking care of the elderly has been difficult. The proportion of older people to the younger generation shows an imbalance, so there’s a deficit of people that can care for the elders. Thus, many youths are also not able to work full time. 

According to Japan Today, a study from a 2019 labor ministry report showed that about 40% of citizens were only working part-time or as temporary hires. On top of everything, after the pandemic hit, more people lost their jobs. The country’s economy grew unstable. As the middle class isn’t making as much money, they are “slowly [sink] into poverty.”  However, the use of stem cells for degenerative diseases may make it easier to take care of elders, as well as help the older generation gain more independence. 

The researchers in the corneal disease study used stem cells grown in a lab which are basic building blocks that can be developed into other cells. Specifically, the stem cells that are utilized are induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that have been reverted back to the “stem” state so that they can serve as the building unit for most organ tissue. For the latest cornea study, three of the patients’ eyesight improved and have been reported with no side effects a year later. The Japanese government has invested $970 million towards iPS technology for “regenerative medicine” and the idea behind stem cell research is to raise artificial cells to replace the damaged or unhealthy ones in the body. 

The iPS solution for corneal implants would be a stepping stone for other medical technologies. There are already discussions surrounding stem cells being used to help treat other disorders. For example, Toru Kimura, Representative Director and Executive Vice President of Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, is currently working with Kyoto University on a solution to the neurodegenerative disease Parkinson’s. 

Although Japan’s population problem is a major concern, the use of iPS stem cells would be an effective way to mediate the issue. The research would make great strides forward— not only for Japan but for other countries as well. If more trials go through, the elderly population wouldn’t have to suffer as much from various degenerative diseases. They would no longer need as much assistance to look after themselves and the young can take full-time jobs. However, as iPS makes its way to being utilized in society, I think researchers need to find more information about the limitations of iPS and other stem cells. 

Even though I think these advancements in medicine are a good thing that would help Japan’s economy and substantially benefit the elderly population living there, I am also a little skeptical about the long-term effects. For instance, there could be a risk for carcinogens, which are capable of causing cancer. Hence, as with all new medical developments, we need to be wary about the initial success. But for now, the trials attest to great promise!


About The Author

Jordan Varney received a masters from UC Davis in Psychology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd. Varney is editor in chief of the Vanguard at UC Davis.

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