Stem Cells: Understanding Their Benefits

You’ve probably heard about stem cells in the news and may wonder exactly what that scientific term means. Stem cells are the body’s master cells. Stem cells can renew themselves and they can also make a variety of other kinds of cells.

Stem cells are either embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells. In the lab, embryonic stem cells keep reproducing themselves until they’re coaxed into creating specific types of cells. In the body, these cells eventually disappear, so a human adult body no longer contains cells that can generate any kind of cell — at least not in the normal course of things.

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Stem cells are unique cells: They have the ability to become many different types of cells, and they can replicate rapidly. Stem cells play a huge part in the body’s healing process, and the introduction of new stem cells has always showed great promise in the treatment of many conditions. It wasn’t until we found out where and how to isolate these cells that we started using them for transplants. Researchers are currently conducting clinical trials with stem cells, adding to the growing list of 80 diseases which they can treat.

Skin grafts have been used for centuries, although no one knew exactly why they worked until fairly recently. Skin is particularly rich in stem cells because so much skin is lost through normal wear and tear; you shed thousands, or even millions, of dead skin cells every day. In mild cuts and burns, these stem cells work to repair the damaged tissue. In severe burns, though, the stem cells in the burn area are destroyed, so doctors have to take skin from an undamaged area.

Stem cells are unprogrammed cells in the human body that can be described as "shape shifters." These cells have the ability to change into other types of cells. Stem cells are at the center of a new field of science called regenerative medicine. Because stem cells can become bone, muscle, cartilage and other specialized types of cells, they have the potential to treat many diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer. Eventually, they may also be used to regenerate organs, reducing the need for organ transplants and related surgeries.

Stem cells are already being used to treat leukemia and some joint repairs. For example, a bone-marrow transplant is accomplished by injecting stem cells from a donor into the bloodstream of the patient. Stem cells from bone marrow also have the ability to repair the liver. Researchers are studying stem cells to find out if they could correct brain damage resulting from Parkinson's disease.