Stem cells are being used to make great strides in the medical field. What are stem cells, and how are they paving the way for greater breakthroughs in terms of treating disease? There are various explanations, but first, here’s a breakdown on the details to what stem cells are.
Stem Cells: What are they?
Stem cells are the body’s raw materials. They are special human cells that have the ability to develop into many different cell types. How can stem cells do this? By dividing to form more cells called daughter cells, which can either become new stem cells or become specialized cells like muscle cells, brain cells, blood cells, and so on. Also, stem cells have the special ability to repair damaged tissues.
Types of Stem Cells
There are two main forms of stem cells. The first form is embryonic stem cells, which are highly useful for medical research. These stem cells are acquired from unused embryos that come from vitro fertilization procedures and are donated to science. These cells can turn into more than one type of cell.
The second main form of stem cells are adult stem cells. There are two types of these cells. One type comes from fully developed tissues like the brain, skin, and bone marrow. There are only small amounts of stem cells in these tissues, and they’re more likely to generate only certain type of cells, such as a stem cell derived from the liver can only generate more liver cells.
The second type of stem cells are induced pluripotent stem cells. These are adult stem cells that have been manipulated in a laboratory to take on the pluripotent characteristics of embryonic stem cells. Pluripotent means capable of giving rise to different cell types. Scientists were first reported to have been able to manipulate these adult cells in 2006.
Stem Cells- What’s the Big Deal?
So why are stem cells so crucial in the medical and science field? Well for one, watching the way stem cells mature into cells in bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs/tissues, doctors are able to get a better understanding on how diseases and other conditions can occur and develop. Stem cells are used in regenerative medicine, by being guided into becoming specific cells that can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people. People who could benefit from stem cell therapies include those with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, type 1 diabetes, cancer, burns, and spinal cord injuries, to name a few. Work with stem cells continues to advance in terms of their application in transplants and regenerative medicine.
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Stem cells are also used to test new drugs for effectiveness and safety. This is particularly beneficial as researchers can test drugs still being developed/investigated on stem cells instead of people.
Where Do Stem Cells Come From?
Embryonic stem cells are from embryos that are three to five days old. The embryo is called a blastocyst in this stage and has about 150 cells. These are pluripotent and can divide into more stem cells as well as be used to regenerate or repair diseased tissue and organs.
Adult stem cells are found in most adult tissues, such as bone marrow or fat. When compared to embryonic stem cells, these adult stem cells have a more limited ability to create various different cells for the body. Emerging research shows that adult stem cells may be able to create various cells, however. Bone marrow cells may be able to create bone or heart muscle cells, for example.
Adult stem cells are altered to be like embryonic stem cells with the use of genetic reprogramming. With altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers can reprogram them to act similarly to embryonic stem cells. For example, regular connective tissue cells can be reprogrammed to become functional heart cells. This can be very beneficial in terms of letting researchers use reprogrammed cells instead of embryonic cells to prevent immune system rejection of the new cells.
Perinatal stem cells are also emerging as an option for further research and use. These cells are found in amniotic fluid through a procedure known as amniocentesis. This procedure is done on pregnant women to test for abnormalities. These stem cells have the ability to change into specialty cells, but there is still some more studies to be done on behalf of researchers.
As with any scientific research, there are challenges and controversies when it comes to stem cell use, particularly with embryonic stem cells.
In terms of embryonic stem cells, the big controversy is that because the stem cells are extracted from early stage embryos created through in vitro fertilization, the question of ethics comes into play. However, there were guidelines created by the National Institutes of Health in 2009 that defined how the cells may be used and the exact recommendations on the donation of embryonic stem cells. These guidelines state that the stem cells from embryos can only be used when the embryo is no longer needed.
Embryonic stem cells take a lot of research to learn about how they develop and also so researchers can understand how to control the cells created from them. A challenge with using embryonic stem cells is that the embryonic stem cells available today have a high likelihood of being rejected by the body.
And although some may wonder why adult stem cells can’t just be used instead, the reason why embryonic stem cells are useful for research is that the cells are more versatile and durable. Also, adult stem cells may not be as manipulative, and can contain abnormalities from environmental hazards or errors during reprogrammation.
When it comes to adult pluripotent stem cells, these can be difficult to grow in the laboratory. There is still research being done to better the process. Also, the adult stem cells are generally found in smaller quantities throughout the body, and may contain DNA abnormalities as well.
Stem cells can help researchers make greater strides in terms of combating disease and aiding with regenerative medicine. Though there are some challenges and controversies revolving around these stem cells and their origins, there is no denying that without stem cells there would be some medical advances delayed in time. With the use of stem cells, researchers will be able to reach greater scientific breakthroughs in the name of medicine.
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