What are Stem Cells?

Science constantly strives to advance the human race, and one of the most important areas that we have advanced in is the field of health.  Since the 1970s, the usage and research of stem cells has proven to be an incredibly useful advancement that we are likely just scratching the surface of. Today we will talk about what stem cells are, where they come from, and some of the amazing things we are able to use them for.

What are Stem Cells?

Most cells in your body serve one specialized purpose. They may be muscle cells, blood cells, or cells that are a part of any organ, tissue, or structure in your body. Stem cells on the other hand are undifferentiated, meaning they do not yet have a specific role. They can however become differentiated, and take on any role in the body. This is important because when a specialized cell in your body dies, a stem cell will be able to step in and replace it and be able to perform the job exactly as the old cell did. 

Stem cells can also divide to form more cells, which can remain as stem cells or become specialized cells just like the original stem cell. This occurs naturally in the body, but scientists are also able to recreate the conditions needed for the stem cells to divide in a lab. This allows them to take advantage of the stem cells ability to replicate indefinitely, something differentiated cells can only do a finite number of times. A single cell in a lab can produce a group of cells called a stem cell line, which will keep growing without specializing. Portions of the line can be taken for storage or for research. 

How are Stem Cells Acquired?

There are a few different kinds of stem cells, each with different ways from which we are able to harvest them. The first kind is embryonic stem cells. These come from voluntarily donated embryos that are left unused during fertility treatments. These embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they are able to become any kind of cell in the body. 

The next type are adult stem cells. These cells are found in most tissues in an adult’s body, waiting for when they are needed to differentiate and take on their duties as a specialized cell. These cells can also be harvested from the body, usually from bone marrow, but they are less numerous and less versatile than their embryonic counterparts. Scientists are however able to reprogram some of these adult cells to act like embryonic cells and become pluripotent. 

Stem cells can also be extracted from the blood of umbilical cords at birth. Like adult stem cells, umbilical cord cells are able to be used in regenerative medicine, but also aren’t as versatile as embryonic stem cells. The umbilical cord fluid is actually much more rich with stem cells than bone marrow while also being quite easy to extract, giving umbilical cord cells a distinct advantage over regular adult stem cells. Stem cells are also found in the amniotic fluid that surrounds a baby in the womb, and research is ongoing into their nature as well as how we may be able to make use of them.

How Can Stem Cells Be Used

Stem cells are commonly used for regenerative medicine, or stem cell therapy. This therapy is usually performed through a bone marrow transplant, which can come from a bone marrow donor or even from your own body. This can be used for a number of reasons, such as to replace bone marrow that is damaged or not working properly. This is commonly used to treat a person that has undergone chemotherapy. It can also fight certain cancers in other ways, by having the new stem cells attack the cells that are cancerous. This stem cell therapy has already been used to treat diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. 

Stem cell therapy can also be used to help someone recover from an injury. Typically this is used to repair injured tissues like muscles, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments. Stem cells can be applied directly to the damaged area during a surgery, but they can also be delivered by injections that are much less invasive than a full surgery. Researchers hope that this can soon be applied to bone injuries, and perhaps even be able to help repair a damaged spinal cord. 

While the things we can already do with stem cells are life changing for many people, the research being put into stem cells may show that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Further discoveries in the field will hopefully allow us to better understand our bodies and the diseases that try to attack us, and develop drugs that will be even more effective in keeping us healthy. The possibilities are so vast that they may even be able to one day help us repair or replace entire organs, fight chronic diseases, correct genetic defects, and help prevent neurological conditions.

Be on the lookout for part 2 where we will discuss some of these possible future developments. 

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