The Stem Cell Human Body Shop

Imagine what stem cells might be able to do in terms of revolutionizing medicine and society in coming decades. It’s an exciting time.

car parts

Image from

One cool notion that’s been out there for a long time (e.g. see this Tech Review piece from 2001) is The Human Body Shop.

I’d extend that to The Stem Cell Human Body Shop as I’ve discussed in my book and in this 2013 radio interview. How would this work?In the future it may literally be possible to replace human body parts that otherwise may have led to our deaths. Have a liver problem? In twenty years perhaps scientists can grow you a new one from your stem cells and pop it in after taking out the old one like a replacement part for your car. Same goes for heart, lungs, kidney, pancreas, and more.

VC-01 post-implant final

Even now, the biotech ViaCyte is testing in humans an encapsulated form of essentially a bioengineered pancreas in a new, exciting clinical trial (see image above). Infusions of laboratory-grown young blood may in coming decades aid the fight against aging.

What might the risks be?

A few years back I held a stem cell essay contest and one of the winners, then 14-year-old Claire August, wrote an inspired piece invoking the Ship of Theseus in this context. If we start replacing many of our body parts and there are few left that are original, are we the same person?

Another issue revolves around price and access. Could we end up in a future where 1%er’s live say 150 years due to the Human Stem Cell Body Shop, while most people live about 80 years on average?

Still, overall the notion of organ replacement via bioengineering and stem cells provides real hope looking to the next few decades. In decades to come if we need a part to replace an old or diseased one, the process of getting a new one “installed” may not be so different than fixing a car part now except the new part will have to be grown first.

8 thoughts on “The Stem Cell Human Body Shop

  1. Well, as a younger man I was quite comfortable rebuilding car engines and so forth. The modern car, not so much… I guess it’s called “progress”. Of course companies could have invested effort making cars more easy to fix but as my more mechanical cousin remarked to me: “Why would they bother, most people don’t want to fix their cars”.

    I also recall a conversation (about 2003) with a medical professional who pointed to lab experiments growing cartilage. The message seemed to be that within ten years such anatomical parts would become replacement parts. This would have been a triumph for the “pharma-industry-FDA” model for the treatment of disease — but it hasn’t happened.

    Ten years used to be the magic number. Far enough into the future so that most people would forget when the promise failed to materialize… but still near enough to the present so as to seem relevant, exciting, even.

    Paul, I’m glad to see you have shifted to the 20 year time scale.

    Replacement parts is dramatic but surely this would be a method of last resort when other more conservative approaches have failed, after all there are many ways in which stem cells could help:
    by interacting with macrophages
    cytokine secretion and mitochondrial transfer
    (perhaps even partially repairing tissue in situ)

    These more modest modes of treatment offer some hope for the here now. To me, such modes of treatment seem to be more in line with “the practice of medicine model” as opposed to the “pharma-industry-FDA model”.

    Even though these more modest types of treatment are still experimental, some stem cell clinics are behaving in a transparent and responsible way — and they, along with their patients, are helping to advance the state of the art. I think this point needs to be made in view of your previous post:

    I agree with you that some stem cell clinics are predatory but I’d add that some are honest and making a real effort. And then there are others that just don’t seem to know what they are doing. Seems that some doctors get fooled by pharma salespeople:

    As for the FDA-approved spare parts from big pharma, I just hope that all the research and development work is kept in the public domain so that we don’t end up with this sort of fiasco:

  2. @Brian
    interesting post. thank you.
    you worte: “some stem cell clinics are behaving in a transparent and responsible way” and ” but I’d add that some are honest and making a real effort”
    Is there anywhere a list available? Which stem cell clinic seems to be serious?

    I think this is the big question. How can I divide between a serious clinic and a predatory one? without being a scientist myself?

  3. Ship of Theseus – will people transplanted with neurons grown in the lab have memories of the plastic dish? Should GMP facilities be encouraged to play Mozart while the cells are being prepared?

    Is this the future for “cultured” neurons?

  4. just one idea:
    The problem: There are serious and pedatory stem cell clinics. For potential stem cell patients it seems to be very difficult or even impossible to differ between the serious ones and the others.

    my proposal: Stem cell experts should aggregate and develop a seal of approval for serious stem cell clinics (- like a seal of approval for biological food for example).
    This seal of approval could be a big help for potential patients. Such a seal of approval could even improve the quality of stem cell clinics

  5. Thanks for all your info, I do agree, the future is Stem Cells for the human race, we sent a man to the moon, do organ transplants, Stem Cell is next in line with many break-trough’s coming,

  6. Hi Richie,
    I don’t know of any such list. I am not a biologist, so I also struggle to interpret much of the peer-reviewed literature in this field. I don’t know enough to offer advice.

    At a personal level, I have had a medical procedure using MSC cultured from bone marrow. Before getting it, I studied the peer-reviewed publications that had been written by the doctors offering the procedure and then I compared them with other publications by other researchers and medical doctors who were doing similar work. It took me about a year before I got to a point where I had enough of a handle upon the safety side of things to feel comfortable. I went into it knowing that I may not benefit but being satisfied that my outcome would be recorded in their registry as a data point that might have some small value among many other data points.

    I greatly value the information that Paul presents and I consider his opinions seriously, even when I don’t agree with him. Similarly, I also tune into a blog by Chris Centeno, who has a more medical style. I always ask myself the question: “Do I disagree because the other guy’s argument/data is wrong/inconclusive, or is it because he is saying something that I don’t want to hear?”

    Even the experts are stuck when dealing with the state-of-the-art, it has a nasty habit of changing from time to time…

  7. Hi Brian,
    yes, stem cell science and stem cell applications are a very complicated field. I have some personal experiences, too. My brother was healed by a stem cell therapy. He had an avascular necrosis at his joint. Several physicians already wanted to do a big and dangerous surgery at his foot. His last try was this stem cell therapy (PRP-therapy). The outcome was amazing. He was healed within three month after suffering from this avascular necrosis for seven years. He found just one doctor who offers this new therapy and there were so many other physicians who said this new therapy is worthless.
    Because of this experience I know how difficult (maybe impossible) it is to judge these new therapies.But I also have seen what a power stem cell therapies could have in the future.
    Pauls blog is great and gives us so many interesting information, but I think sometimes he could be a little more optimistic about new kinds of therapies – just my opinion.
    For example I am very sceptic about the amazing story about Gordie Howe and his wonderful recovery after his big stroke, too, but at the same time I am a little bit optimistic that stemedica, who treated Gordie, possibly have found a working therapy. Maybe we will get more information in May 2016, because in May 2016 will end an early clinical trial by stemedica about this kind of therapy. Hope this clinical trial will be successful.

    I also heard about Dr. Centeno, but i don’t know his blog. Could you please let me know, where to find it?
    Or do you mean this one?
    with best wishes

  8. There seem two types of human therapeutics development models, the first old school’s one developed on need-based studies in direct clinics like blood transfusion and bone marrow transplant that did not go into the rigour of modern new school drug discovery model. The latter is a more cumbersome and long 10-15 years, expensive journey, costing about 1.4 billion dollars. Currently the stem cell-based therapeutics is trapped in the regulatory framework involved in the new school model of therapeutics hence very slow progress. I believe both these models should be encouraged and stem cell-based therapeutics should also be given fair chance through old school model albeit identifying legitimate clinics and lab involved in case controlled studies be encouraged. One way forward will be to legislate the involvement of a qualified scientist with the clinician so that quality control is taken care of in these clinics. This will further ensure safety issue and making necessary regulatory approval easy.

    A/Professor Kuldip Sidhu

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