Stem Cell 101
Unless you’re a doctor or a scientist, you probably don’t spend your days discussing the moving parts of stem cells. Instead, you may think of them as science fiction, created in a lab, with the capabilities to grow human organs, and you’d be almost right! Fortunately, stem cells aren’t science fiction – they’re very real. And, they are being used to test the possibility of growing human organs for transplant, but there’s so much more these minuscule cells are good for.
First Things First, Who Discovered the Usefulness of Stem Cells?
The phrase “stem cell” entered into the scientific nomenclature in 1868 when a German biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel used it. However, it didn’t always carry the same weight. Back then, he used the term to depict the fertilized egg that grows into you, or I, or any living being. That definition still stands, but isn’t complete. Over the years, scientists studied various aspects of cells, how they grow and come into fruition, and found the details of stem cells to be unique and useful, and in 1968, the first bone marrow transplant, one of the most widely used forms of stem cell treatment, was successfully completed. Since then, bone marrow transplants have saved countless lives, and stem cell research has continued to grow. Now, stem cells are being used for a variety of healing purposes.
What are stem cells?
In simple terms, stem cells are cells that have the capability to grow into specialized cells. For example, those embryo cells that were first given the token by Haeckel fit the definition because the embryonic cells turn into skin, lungs, toes, a brain, and the rest of the animal system. As mentioned, these cells have the ability to become any type of tissue, and therefore, offer the most possibilities in regard to medical advancement. However, the method of retrieval for these cells raises ethical questions that are still being considered.
Once formed, various types of tissue contain specialized cells that have the ability to self-renew into the same type of tissue. These are called adult stem cells. As these cells divide, they create the same types of tissue. Nevertheless, scientists are busy studying how to turn adult stem cells into new types of cells that would help heal different parts of the body.
What are stem cells used for?
One of the most known procedures that utilize stem cells is bone marrow transplants. These treatments are the original stem cell therapy, and doctors have saved countless lives over the years by utilizing these cells. Now, stem cell therapy is used to treat, or is being studied as a treatment for, a variety of ailments, including:
- Neurodegeneration: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease
- Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries
- Heart Conditions
- Blood Conditions
- The Regrowth of Teeth
- Blindness and Other Vision Issues
- Wound and Bone Healing
- Immune Diseases
We’ve already seen how stem cells can treat painful conditions by regenerating tissue safely and effectively. As the scientific community continues to study the possibilities of stem cell therapies, the medical advancements will offer new approaches to previously devastating prognoses.
“History of Stem Cell Research – A Timeline.” Boston Children’s Hospital [World Wide Web site]. Boston, MA: Children’s Hospital Boston. [Cited June 20, 2017]. Available at www.stemcell.childrenshospital.org/about-stem-cells/history.
“Stem cells: What they are and what they do.” Mayo Clinic [World Wide Web site]. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, March 23, 2013 [cited June 20, 2017]. Available at www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/bone-marrow-transplant/in-depth/stem-cells/art-20048117?pg=2.