Stem cells and the benefits of working with them are a commonly misunderstood topic. This article will serve as a sort of Stem Cell 101 for those interested in learning more about them at the foundational level. It will cover a range of basics, including what they are, where they come from, and what they have the potential to do in the medical field.
Stem cells have two significant qualities that differentiate them from other cells. First, they are capable of renewing themselves through cell division and are unspecialized cells, as opposed to other cells which have already been specialized with a specific designation. Second, they can be made to become tissue or organ-specific cells with specialized functions as a product of certain experimental or physiological conditions. Due to these functions, they can be made to repair and replace damaged tissues, making them incredibly useful.
These qualities give them the potential to develop into numerous cell types in the body and also to serve as a repair system within tissues. They are able to divide without limit to replace other cells, the cell divisions maintaining the specialized function once they have assumed a specialization.
So where exactly do these cells come from? A majority of stem cells used for research and medicine are embryonic stem cells, and they can come from blastocysts, which are embryos that are 3-5 days old. The eggs have been fertilized in-vitro and donated for medical or research purposes.
There are also adult stem cells, which holds the same regenerative and ability to specialized properties as embryonic stem cells. These are commonly also referred to as somatic stem cells by scientists. The main difference between embryonic and somatic stem cells is that the scientists are still unsure–and continuing to research with enthusiasm–where somatic stem cells come from.
In the medical world, this versatility holds tremendous potential and possibility. Work has been and is still continuing to be done as to how stem cells can be used in cell-based therapies to treat certain diseases. Diseases that might be treated by these transplanted stem cells include diabetes, traumatic spinal cord injury, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, heart disease, vision loss, and hearing loss.
Stem cell research, on this note, is still something that is relatively new. There are so many opportunities that are unexplored or in the process of being explored for that true potential that these cells could have and the tremendous impact that they undoubtedly will have on modern medicine.