Medical treatment involving stem cells is an ever-growing, billion-dollar industry, so chances are you have heard about it in the news. Here in the U.S. and around the world, stem cells are being used in various therapies to treat a wide variety of health problems and diseases, including dementia, autism, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, osteoarthritis, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury. Treatments for such health issues may sound promising, but the risk is many of those being sold and advertised aren’t yet proven to be safe and effective. This is why it’s so important to educate yourself before jumping into any kind of stem cell treatment.
What are stem cells?
To gain a better understanding of this new age of medical research, one must first understand what stem cells are and how they work. Stem cells are special human cells that can develop into many different types of cells. They can divide and produce more of the same type of stem cells, or they can turn into different functioning cells. There are no other types of cells in the body that have this natural ability to generate new cell types.
Where do stem cells come from?
So where do stem cells that are used for research and medical treatments come from? The three main types of stem cells are embryonic (or pluripotent) stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells come from unused, in vitro fertilized embryos that are three to five days old. The embryos are only donated for research purposes with the informed consent of the donors. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can turn into any cell type in the body.
Adult stem cells are found in small numbers in developed tissues in different parts of the body, such as bone marrow, skin, and the brain. They are specific to a certain kind of tissue in the body and are limited to maintaining and repairing the tissue in which they are found. For example, liver stem cells can only make new liver tissue; they aren’t able to make new muscle tissue.
Induced pluripotent stem cells are another form of adult stem cells. These are stem cells that have been manipulated in a laboratory and reprogrammed to work like embryotic (or pluripotent) stem cells. While these altered adult stem cells don’t appear to be clinically different from embryonic stem cells, research is still being conducted to determine if the effects they have on humans differ from actual embryonic stem cells.
Stem cells can also be found in amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood. These stem cells have the ability to change into specialized cells like embryonic stem cells. While more research is being conducted to determine the potential of these types of stem cells, researchers already actively use these through amniocentesis procedures. In this procedure, the stem cells drawn from amniotic fluid samples of pregnant women can be screened for developmental abnormalities in a fetus.
How stem cells function
The main difference between embryonic and adult stem cells is how they function. Embryonic stem cells are more versatile. Since they can divide into more stem cells or become any type of cell in the body, they can be used to regenerate or repair a variety of diseased tissue and organs. Adult stem cells only generate the types of cells from where they are taken from in the body.
The future of stem cell research
The ability for stem cells to regenerate under the right conditions in the body or in a laboratory is why researchers and doctors have become so interested in studying them. Stem cell research is helping scientists and doctors to better understand how certain diseases occur, how to possibly generate healthy cells to replace diseased cells, and offer ways to test new drugs.
Clearly, stem cell research is showing great potential for understanding and treating a range of diseases and other health issues, but there is still a lot to learn. While there are some diseases that are showing success using stem cell treatments, many others are yet to be proven in clinical trials and should be considered highly experimental.
In our next article, various stem cell treatments, FDA regulations, and other stem cell hot topics will be explored. It will also focus on what to look for when considering stem cell therapies so people aren’t misled or misinformed about the benefits and risks.
For more information regarding the basics of stem cells visit these sites:
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.