First, a quick rundown on cells…
All tissues within the body are made up of cells. They vary depending on their purpose, so blood cells work hard to transport oxygen throughout the body, muscle cells contract and generate heat, and skin cells protect. Underneath it all, there are cells that contain no function, except to regenerate into other cells that serve a specific role.
Which leads us to stem cells:
These cells, the ones with that don’t protect, transport, contract, or serve a specified function – it is their job to create replacements for the specialized cells. As stem cells, when they reproduce, they can create more brain cells, heart cells, skin cells, and other types that make the body run correctly. Without stem cells, the human lifespan would be much too short to exist as a species, since cells are constantly dying. The body needs to replace them somehow!
Where do they come from?
Stem cells come from a few different places, and their point of origin and foundational function tells us a lot about how they can play a role in medicine.
Embryonic stem cells are obtained from a three to five-day old blastocyst that are normally created in a lab setting using in vitro fertilization when they are being studied. These are the cells that reproduce in masse to turn an embryo into a full-fledged human being. Similar cells can be found in the umbilical cord at birth.
Somatic stem cells are found in every human, where they replenish the tissues in need of repair with replacement cells. Somatic stem cells are often tissue-type specific, so stem cells that produce skin cells, otherwise called epithelial cells, can only make that unique cell. Others are more flexible, but still have their limitations. For medicinal use, they are sourced through donor transplant or therapeutic cloning.
How do they work?
Due to the stem cells’ uncanny ability to divide and generate specified cells that have died off or are sick, scientists and doctors have been intrigued with the topic for many years. Through laboratory studies, and eventually through everyday medicine, stem cells have proven to act as treatment for a variety of painful ailments and illnesses.
How can you benefit from stem cells?
Stem cell treatment in the current day utilizes somatic stem cells in order to heal an abundance of maladies, and scientific advancements are challenging the nature of medicine as a whole.
Currently, stem cells are used to treat cancer with bone marrow transplants and other types of treatments. They have shown promise as treatment for degenerative disorders of the brain, like Parkinson’s disease, and stem cells bring relief to those suffering from painful conditions, such as arthritis.
As scientists continue to study these wondrous stem cells, we should expect to see a dramatic increase in medicinal usages. For example, they’re already experimenting with the growth of human organs, and have been quite successful in the remedial phases of this process. Someday, rather than being put on a wait list, people in need of a new organ will simply grow their own.
NIH Stem Cell Information Home Page. In Stem Cell Information [World Wide Web site]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016 [cited April 21, 2017]. Available at https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics.htm.
[khanacademymedicine]. (2015, March 27). Stem cells | Cells | MCAT | Khan Academy. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/uUH5YI5dTOg.
[TED-Ed]. (2013, September 10). What are stem cells? – Craig A. Kohn. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/evH0I7Coc54.