What is a Stem Cell?

Every organ and tissue in our body grew out of a cluster of stem cells early in development. A stem cell differs from every other cell in the body in its ability to renew itself. It can divide into many more just like it.

human stem cellsStem cells can repair and replace tissue in the human body. In other words, stem cells have the power to heal.

Think of our skin. The tissue in our skin needs constant renewal that could not take place without stem cells. Or muscle — stem cells in our muscles are what repair damaged tissue when we are injured.

Early in life, stem cells have the extraordinary potential to develop into any type of cell in the human body.

They start in the embryo as unprogrammed cells, then become specialized to create bone, muscle, skin, the heart, the brain, and over 250 other types of specialized cells. These are called pluripotent stem cells.

Stem cells have three special properties:

  1. Stem cells have the ability to specialize. They are able to further develop a daughter cell after division into a specialized cell. In this way, they contribute to the constant development of new blood cells, muscle cells, nerve cells or bone cells. Stem cells are therefore true all-rounders. Injured or diseased cells are thus replaced. Stem cells therefore take over important regeneration and repair mechanisms in the body.
  2. Stem cells are able to renew themselves by replication. They have the ability to divide and produce a copy with the same properties.
  3. Stem cells are universal cells. They have not yet developed into cell types with certain functions.

These special abilities make stem cells so interesting for regenerative medicine and therapeutic use.

Using Embyronic Stem Cells to Save People

Researchers from Mayo Clinic have found that stem cells can be used to treat disease and injury. They stimulate the body to repair itself.

For example, bone marrow transplants have been taking place for more than 40 years.

These procedures rely on transplanting amniotic, umbilical stem cells derived from bone marrow and have dramatically altered the treatment of blood disorders and certain cancers such as leukemia.

In the past 20 years, significant new discoveries have emerged — breakthroughs that the original discoverers of stem cells never dreamed about. Researchers are finding new ways to use stem cells to rebuild tissue in many parts of the body where it has been damaged, such as the eye, the pancreas and the brain. Some revolutionary treatments for blindness, MS, stroke and spinal cord injury are already in early stage clinical trials.

Which diseases can be treated with stem cells?

Some applications of embryonic stem cells for a number of diseases are being investigated in clinical trials. It is still too early to determine whether any of these applications will work. The clinical trial process is important to prove and differenciate that a new treatment tested is safe, effective and better than existing treatments.

There are several ongoing or completed clinical trials with pluripotent stem cells derived from bone marrow. The main treatments with progress in regards to pluripotency are outlined below:

  • Macular degeneration
  • Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other motor neuronal diseases
  • diabetes
  • Spinal cord injury (endparalysis.org summarises the clinical trials and the European Spinal Cord Injury Federation has helpful advice on untested therapies)
  • Myocardial infarction (an update on stem cells and heart disease can be found at closerlookatstemcells.org)

The following list shows the progress of research in new, ongoing or completed clinical trials with tissue stem cells:

  • Multiple sclerosis therapy with blood stem cells
  • Studies on leukemia
  • Cancer therapy
  • cartilage or tendon injuries
  • Lymphoma

It is worth noting that there are numerous other clinical trials performed by scientists that are not listed here, for the

  • Testing of special drugs for the stimulation of stem cells in the patient’s body
  • Manufacture of cells or cell lines to be used in research and clinical trials.

This post is also available in: German

William C. Hilberg
As an author, Mr. Hilberg has published several papers on health issues that have gained international recognition. He is close to nature and loves the seclusion and activity as a freelance journalist. In his function as editor William C. Hilberg manages the entire content of PENP. Our team greatly appreciates his expertise and is proud to have him on board.