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What Are Stem Cells, and Why Are They So Important in Medicine?

What Are Stem Cells, and Why Are They So Important in Medicine?

You’ve probably heard of the term “stem cells” in the news or on social media, but what are stem cells exactly? Read on to learn more about what these cells are, what potential benefits they can provide, and what the future holds for these cells.

What Are Stem Cells?

Did you know that most of the cells in the body are specialized cells? What this means is that they serve very specific functions in the body. For example, groups of muscle cells called muscle fibers can contract and expand so we can move different parts of our bodies. Another example would be blood cells, which carry around oxygen from our lungs to different parts of the body.

Most of our cells serve very specific functions, and they almost never deviate from those functions. However, this is not the case when it comes to stem cells.

Stem cells are a type of cell that can develop into other types of cells. This means that they have the potential to become muscle cells, skin cells, brain cells, etc1. Our bodies can take advantage of these cells to replace specialized cells that might have been damaged or lost. Essentially, they serve as a means for the body to repair itself.

Stem cells are able to do this because they’re essentially a blank slate. They are also capable of cell division, which means that they can divide in order to produce more stem cells.

What Are the Different Types?

There are three main types of stem cells, which are embryonic, adult, and induced pluripotent cells2.

Embryonic cells are cells that supply embryos with the cells that they need to develop and grow into a baby.

Adult cells replace cells that have been lost or damaged. Compared to embryonic cells, adult cells can’t turn into whatever cells the body needs. They can only turn into blood cells or skin cells. This limits their function, but they are still very important cells in the body.

Lastly are the induced pluripotent cells. These types of cells are made in the laboratory, and scientists can “induce” reprogramming in these cells to be able to transform them into other types of cells. These hold a lot of potential in the medical field as they can be used to create almost any new cell that the body needs.

What Are Stem Cells Used For?

At the moment, the most widespread use for these types of cells is for bone marrow transplants. The cells used in these procedures can be found in a person’s bone marrow, and it allows the body to create new blood cells.

This form of treatment is particularly useful for cancer patients undergoing treatment chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This is because these procedures can kill off even the healthy cells found in a person’s bone marrow. Undergoing a bone marrow transplant helps replenish the supply of cells and allows patients to start producing more blood cells which their body needs3.

Scientists are also trying to study a potential use for these cells when it comes to cell regeneration. It’s possible that in the future, we can use stem cells to “grow” completely new organs for sick patients. This means that they no longer need to wait for organ donors, as laboratories can start growing cells on their own.

Despite this, stem cells remain a contentious topic. This is because in the case of embryonic stem cells, some of which have been sourced from embryos, which are sometimes aborted4. This is one reason why some people are against this type of research.

Nowadays, doctors and scientists are more aware of the ethical implications of their research. They are also looking for more ethical sources of embryonic cells, which don’t involve sourcing the cells from embryos5.

Regardless, harnessing the power of stem cells can allow us to treat numerous diseases and help millions of people get better.

Check out other Health Topics here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

1 Stem Cells: MedlinePlus, https://medlineplus.gov/stemcells.html, Accessed September 15, 2021

2 What is a stem cell? | Facts | yourgenome.org, https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-a-stem-cell, Accessed September 15, 2021

3 What Are Stem Cells? – Health Encyclopedia – University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=160&contentid=38, Accessed September 15, 2021

4 What Are Stem Cells?, https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=what-are-stem-cells-160-38, Accessed September 15, 2021

5 Stem cells: What they are and what they do – Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/bone-marrow-transplant/in-depth/stem-cells/art-20048117, Accessed September 15, 2021

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Written by Jan Alwyn Batara Updated 3 weeks ago
Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD