You may have heard about stem cells in the news, and perhaps you’ve wondered if they might help you or a family member with a serious disease. Stem cells are special human cells able to develop into many different types of cells. This can range from brain cells to muscle cells. In some cases, they can also fix damaged human tissue. Researchers believe that stem cell-based therapies may one day be used to treat serious illnesses such as paralysis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Stem cells are divided into 2 main forms. These are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells. The embryonic stem cells used in research today come from unused embryos. These result from an in vitro fertilization procedure. They are donated to science. These embryonic stem cells can turn into more than one type of cell.
Adult stem cells. There are 2 types of adult stem cells. One type comes from fully developed tissues such as the brain, skin, and bone marrow. There are only small numbers of stem cells in these tissues. They are more likely to generate only certain types of cells. For example, a stem cell that comes from the liver will only make more liver cells. The second type of adult stem cell can turn into any type of cell (pluripotent). These are adult stem cells that have been changed in a laboratory to be more like embryonic stem cells.
Induced pluripotent stem cells don’t seem to be different from embryonic stem cells, but scientists have not yet found one that can develop every kind of cell and tissue.
Why is There Such an Interest in Stem Cells?
Doctors and scientists hope stem cell studies can help to:
- Increase understanding of how diseases occur. By watching stem cells mature into cells in bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs and tissue, researchers may better understand how diseases and conditions develop.
- Generate healthy cells to replace cells affected by diseases (regenerative medicine). Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used in people to regenerate and repair tissues that have been damaged or affected by diseases.
People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer, and osteoarthritis.
Stem cells may have the potential to be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant and regenerative medicine. Researchers continue to advance knowledge on stem cells and their applications in transplant and regenerative medicine.
What Stem Cell Therapy is Available Now?
While there are a growing number of potential therapies being tested in clinical trials there are only a few stem cell therapies that have so far been approved by the FDA. Right now the most commonly used stem cell-based therapy is bone marrow transplantation. Blood-forming stem cells in the bone marrow were the first stem cells to be identified and were the first to be used in the clinic. This life-saving technique has helped thousands of people worldwide who had been suffering from blood cancers, such as leukemia.
In addition to their current use in cancer treatments, research suggests that bone marrow transplants will be useful in treating autoimmune diseases and in helping people tolerate transplanted organs. Other therapies based on adult stem cells are currently in clinical trials. Until those trials are complete we won’t know which type of stem cell is most effective in treating different diseases.
The FDA warns against stem cell cure-alls – unproven stem cell treatments can be unsafe. So make sure you get all of the facts if you’re considering any type of stem cell treatment.
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