Regenerative medicine is a field of healthcare that attempts to restore normal form and function to our body’s damaged organs and tissues. One popular approach is through cellular therapies such as the ones using stem cells, of which there are two main types:
- Adult stem cells are found throughout the body of developed human beings and can be used to produce all the kinds of cells that an organ is comprised of. This makes it possible to regenerate an entire organ from just a few cells, creating huge potential for transplantation of organs grown from one’s own cells.
- Embryonic stem cells have an even greater ability to make various cells than do adult stem cells because when stem cells are removed from an embryo, they can be used to generate all cell types. This has opened the door to finding cures for chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
However, the use of embryonic stem cells is controversial – if not outright illegal – in many places including America where, due to the fact that it results in the destruction of a human embryo, it is fraught with ethical issues. As a result, federal funding, government support, and general understanding of stem cell research and treatment there has lagged behind other countries, and it is causing American patients to look to more progressive places for certain stem cell treatments.
But the development of this potentially game-changing treatment is booming in Asia. Countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and China are at the forefront, unimpeded by ethical objections to this incredible scientific breakthrough, and their advances have created something of a trend: stem cell tourism. Here is a look at some of the countries pioneering the science and some of the treatments they offer:
World famous for its Acupunctureand Traditional Chinese Medicine, China has also made a name for itself in stem cell research. The country has some of the world’s most open embryonic stem cell research regulations, and as a result many expat Chinese scientists and others from the West are going there to set up world-class clinical testing facilities.
The island city-state is generally regarded as a bio-tech hub and stem cell research pioneer, which has led in part to the WHO ranking its medical system as the world’s sixth best, and to state-of-the-art medical tourism in Singapore, as well. One popular reason medical tourists head there is for stem cell treatments for age-related diseases and cosmetic applications to reverse the impacts of aging.
The Malaysia health care system is known as a leader in stem cell procedures for patients who suffer from cancerous and non-cancerous blood disorders. They are often done with the use of blood taken from a baby’s umbilical cord at the time of its birth, which is rich in stem cells. Their two major cord-blood banks have over 80K clients combined, both international and domestic.
Recently, Japanese scientists were the first to grow human liver tissue from stem cells, and the government has green-lighted a different clinical trial using iPS (“induced pluripotent stem cells,” in this case extracted from skin cells) to treat a common disease that cause blindness in older people.
Another Southeast Asian leader in stem cell research and therapy, who in the last year alone made three major advances: Chulalongkorn University became the first group in Thailand to produce cardiac muscle from human embryonic stem cells; Police General Hospital effectively used adult stem cells to treat arthritis; and Mahidol University’s Siriraj Hospital has uncovered a method to extract stem cells from human amniotic fluid. And the country is also leading the way in embryonic stem-cell banking.
Much like its recent push to become a force in medical tourism, South Korea’s government has vowed to jump start what was once the global leader in stem cell research. As for treatments, South Korea was the world’s first country to approve a drug developed from stem cells, one which treats acute myocardial infarction, and earlier this year the world’s second batch of stem cell-based medicine was introduced for the treatment of degenerative arthritis and knee cartilage defects.
Stem cell research and therapies are wide-ranging and have the potential to change the world of medicine forever by providing cures for a host of troubling diseases. The global stem cell market is estimated to reach $120 billion USD by 2018 and, free from tight restrictions, and with the continued growth of medical tourism hubs like India, Singapore, and Thailand, Asia is expected to maintain its place as the epicenter of stem cell research and therapy.