Stem cells are perhaps some of the most important parts of the human body, yet until recently, we’ve barely understood their worth, and we’re still learning. In fact, despite recent developments, the potential for stem cells is still not fully comprehended by the scientific community, never mind the public at large. On paper, much of what we’re discovering about stem cells seems as if it could be out of a science fiction novel; yet it’s not only reality, but vital to the future of humanity. Understanding how stem cells develop could be the key to not only curing future sufferers of specific ailments, but potentially reversing the damage that has already been done by other diseases or injuries.
What Makes Stem Cells So Important?
In order to recognize why it’s so crucial to identify the path of stem cell development, individuals must first understand what makes stem cells so valuable. Stem cells are unique, and quite different from the typical organisms that may come to mind when people think of cells. Essentially, all cells with specific functions derive from stem cells. Stem cells can actually produce new stem cells, called daughter cells, under the correct circumstances, under a process called self-renewal. However, they can also become the aforementioned specialized cells in a process known as differentiation. Differentiation is what makes stem cells truly special. Stem cells can become blood cells, brain cells, or even bone cells, among other types of cells.
This means that stem cells can lend themselves to several different purposes. By creating new cells, scientists can experiment with them and understand how different diseases occur, which lends itself to uncovering new treatments. This would potentially eliminate or lessen the need for testing new drugs or experimental procedures on human subjects; some experiments could be carried out through the cells produced by stem cells. Stem cells can also potentially be used in regenerative medicine; the new cells formed through differentiation would be used to regenerate or repair the damage done by diseases or traumatic injuries. This is perhaps the most significant contribution stem cells can, and are, give to society. Therefore, the more we know about stem cells, the more progress we can make with them.
What Are The Different Types Of Stem Cells?
Stem cells are divided into a few different types, based on their sources. Perhaps the most well-known, and controversial, forms of stem cells are embryonic stem cells. These stem cells are derived from embryos that are 3 to 5 days old. Embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell in the body, which makes them vital to the study of stem cells in general.
It was actually believed, until recently, that the counterparts to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, could only become cells of the same type. That is, it was believed that they could not differentiate. Thankfully, the progress made in stem cell studies has revealed that adult stem cells may be able to differentiate after all. This means that there has been a push to study the effects that adult stem cells have on patients with certain diseases, if they are able to help these patients in clinical trials, there may be a future in the use of adult stem cells.
Even if adult stem cells do not prove to be as useful as embryonic stem cells on their own, genetic reprogramming may reveal a future for these cells. Altering the genes in adult stem cells can “reprogram” them to act like regular embryonic stem cells. Of course, as scientists are still in the early stages of understanding genetic reprogramming, there is a chance of this process having a negative effect on these cells in the future. Fortunately, perinatal stem cells, cells in amniotic fluid and cord blood, also present potential opportunities for medical advancements. The medical potential in the stem cells found in cord blood is why many parents now pay to store and preserve the cord blood of newborns.
What Is The Road Map Of Stem Cell Development?
Very recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have created a new method that essentially provides a “road map” of stem cell development. Essentially, this road map follows the way that genes used by individual cells work as the cells grow and develop. Seth Black, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Genevieve Stein-O’Brien, a postdoctoral fellow and associate professor of oncology at the same institution, are among the researchers that have worked to uncover the process of stem cell development by studying mouse retinas.
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The reason why the retinas were used in this research is that the cell types that make up the retina are what is called neural progenitors. Neural progenitors are similar to stem cells, in that they can develop into virtually any kind of retinal cells. The types of genes that are switched “on” and “of” during the development of these cells determines what they eventually become. The researchers sequences the DNA of specific mouse retinal cells at different points in time. These cells were basically studied from “birth”, at which point they were neural progenitors, to “adulthood”, when they were adult retinal cells.
A computer program designed by Stein-O’Brien compressed all of the data gathered regarding these cells into the aforementioned road map. In the program, like cells are grouped together, synthesizing all of the information gathered from them. This way, researchers can see and understand the development process of stem cells. By studying the road map, researchers can have a better understanding the impacts of the specific genes and cells on the central nervous system. Potentially, the information gathered from this map will allow scientists to redirect the paths of stem cells. This way, they will have more control over the types of stem cells that develop, and the therapies and treatments that might follow.
How Are Stem Cells Helping People Right Now?
Though researchers, of course, want to make faster progress with stem cells, they’re already helping many people throughout the world. Bone marrow transplants, well known as treatments for diseases like leukemia, are actually stem cell transplants. In cases like those, stem cells replace damaged cells, and give patients the strength to fight the diseases they are struggling with. Adult stem cells and stem cells derived from cord blood are used in these treatments, and adult stem cells are also being tested by researchers in the treatments of degenerative diseases, including heart failure.
Ultimately, it may be a long time before the full extent of stem cells’ potential is known. However, the more scientists understand about stem cells, the more quickly they will understand how to best utilize them. In turn, the more lives will be saved by the remarkable opportunities presented by stem cells.
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