Our bodies are composed of millions of different cells, and each one of them has a certain task it performs. There are cells that carry oxygen, create hormones, ward off infections, and store fat. There are also cells that are responsible for nutrient absorption, toxin removal and neutralization, and blood vessel lining. We also have special types of cells that make skin, hair, and nails. And then there are cells that serve one particular organ (e.g. muscle cells and nerve cells). What all these different types of cells with specialized functions have in common is they all come from stem cells.
You may have heard about stem cells and their unique capabilities. You may have also heard that they can be used to treat various diseases and injuries. Yet, you may still be wondering: What are stem cells? Why are they so important? What diseases can be treated using them?
In this article, we’ll try to answer these and some other frequently asked questions about stem cells and come up with a simple but informative guide. Let’s get started.
What are stem cells and what sets them apart from other cells?
First and foremost, let’s start by answering the commonly asked question: What are stem cells? In essence, they are the raw material our body uses to generate all the other specialized cells.
When provided with the right conditions, whether in the body or the laboratory, stem cells divide and create 'daughter cells'. These daughter cells can either take the role of specialized cells or become new stem cells. These two processes are referred to as differentiation and self-renewal.
What makes them so unique compared to other types of cells are their special abilities. For starters, there’s no limited number of divisions stem cells can go through. Unlike other cells, they have the ability to continue dividing indefinitely.
Stem cells are also unspecialized or undifferentiated, meaning they don’t possess specialized features like muscle, fat, and nerve cells do. They are also capable of developing into other cell types and creating new ones – something no other kind of cell can do.
What are the main sources of stem cells?
Now that we’ve determined what stem cells are, let’s talk about where they come from. Let’s start with embryonic stem cells. As their name suggests, they’re derived from embryos (called blastocysts) when they are between three and five days old. Stem cells that are derived in this process are called pluripotent stem cells. What this means is that they’re able to create new stem cells or form any other cell in the human body except tissues such as placenta.
Then, there are adult stem cells which are multipotent. This means that although they can develop into other cells in the body, they’re not as versatile or capable as embryonic ones.
This is why scientists have created the third type of stem cells referred to as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are adult stem cells that have been reprogrammed to take on the properties of embryonic stem cells.
The final sources stem cells can be derived from are umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid. Stem cells in the umbilical cord blood, as well as the placenta, are derived immediately after birth. After delivery, parents can rely on cord blood banks for the storage and preservation of these precious cells for future medical and therapeutic use. When it comes to stem cells in the amniotic fluid, they are extracted during a procedure called amniocentesis. Stem cells from the umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid are referred to as perinatal stem cells and are capable of taking the role of specialized cells.
What can stem cells be used for?
Now that we’re familiar with where stem cells come from, let’s talk about what they are used for. Depending on where they come from, stem cells can be used in different treatments and procedures.
Adult stem cells have been used for decades. They’ve played a vital role in transplantations and have been used to treat immunological or genetic disorders and blood cancers. They’ve also been used in treatments of chronic wounds as well as severe burn injuries. They are currently being tested for other potential uses, including treatments for diabetes, heart disease, and cerebral palsy.
Stem cells from other sources such as umbilical cord blood have also been proven to treat various illnesses. As of today, there are over 80 diseases and conditions that can be treated with cord blood. These include cancers as well as immune, metabolic, and blood disorders. In addition, stem cells from the placental tissue are used to treat wounds, surgical scars, and certain eye conditions.
There are a number of clinical trials that are currently taking place. Many of them are testing the use of pluripotent stem cells (the ones derived from embryos) as well as other types of these valuable cells.
Why are stem cells important?
The importance of stem cells lies in their ability to treat certain diseases and medical conditions. That said, there’s much more to stem cells that has sparked the interest of many researchers and doctors.
Because of their ability to generate healthy cells, stem cells also have the potential to be used in regenerative medicine. Some of the patients who can benefit from stem cell therapies include those suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and heart disease.
Other than that, these cells also play a vital role in helping researchers and doctors discover how diseases develop. They do this by observing the process of stem cell maturation into specialized cells such as bone and nerve cells.
Last but not least, stem cells can also be useful for investigational drug testing. These tests allow the researchers to check the effectiveness, quality, and safety of the new drugs they develop. In doing so, they can note down the effects of the drug on the cells. If the cells were to be harmed, these tests would also show that.
While the full potential of stem cells is yet to be uncovered, what we currently know about them certainly offers great promise when it comes to future medical treatments. Hopefully, this simple guide has helped you understand what stem cells are and why they are so important and valuable.