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Things You Need to Know: What Are Stem Cells?

by in Stem Cell Database November 24, 2020

Cells are the basic building blocks of all living beings. The human body is composed of trillions of cells consisted of many kinds and they provide various functions to the body.

Among the different types of cells in the human body, stem cells have become a subject of interest for scientists and doctors. In this article, we will tell you what are stem cells so you could learn more about them!

Related: What Are Stem Cells? Why Stem Cells So Important?

Things You Should Know What Are Stem Cells

What Are Stem Cells?

What are stem cells?

First, you should know that stem cells are undifferentiated cells with the unique ability to develop into specialised cell types, as the body needs them.

Cells in the body have specific purposes, such as red blood cells that carry oxygen around our bodies in the blood, but they are unable to divide. However, stem cells are cells that do not yet have a specific role and can become almost any cell that is required.

Stem cells provide new cells for the body as it grows, and they can be used to replace cells and tissues that have been damaged or lost due to disease. Stem cells have two unique properties that enable them to do this:

  • They can divide repeatedly to produce new cells.
  • As they divide, they can change into the other types of cell that make up the body.
Stem Cell division

An illustration showing a stem cell giving rise to more stem cells or specialised cells. Image credit: Genome Research Limited

 

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Types of Stem Cells

There are two main types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Embryonic Stem Cells

The embryonic stem cells used in research today are created from leftover embryos that are willingly donated by patients from fertility clinics. When scientists take stem cells from embryos, these are usually extra embryos that result from in vitro fertilization (IVF). Unlike adult stem cells, these embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. This means that they can turn into more cell types than adult stem cells.

Adult Stem Cells

Adult stem cells, also known as tissue-specific stem cells or somatic stem cells, come from fully developed tissues, such as the brain, skin, and bone marrow. There are only small numbers of stem cells in these tissues. In most of your body’s tissues, tissue-specific stem cells replace the existing cells in your organs as they wear out and die. 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.

There is also a special type of adult stem cells: induced pluripotent stem cells, or ‘iPS cells’. They are adult stem cells that scientists have changed to behave like embryonic stem cells. These stem cells originated from regular skin fat, liver or other cells. To grow stem cells, scientists first extract samples from adult tissue or an embryo. They then place these cells in a controlled culture where they will divide and reproduce but not specialize further. Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can also become any kind of cell in the body.

What Are Stem Cells

An illustration showing different types of stem cell in the body. Image credit: Genome Research Limited

 

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Uses of Stem Cells

The ability of stem cells to take on the role of any type of cell and regenerate damaged tissue makes stem cells valuable for several uses, including research and therapy.

Stem Cell Research

What Are Stem Cells

Image credit: Science Photo Library from Canva

Research is done to look for better understanding of the properties of stem cells so that we can understand how our bodies function and develop and find ways of using stem cells to replace cells or tissues that have been damaged or lost.

We can use stem cells to study how cells become specialised for specific functions in the body, and what happens when this process goes wrong in disease. This in turn increases our understanding of how diseases occur. By understanding stem cell development, we may be able to replicate this process to create new cells, tissues and organs. We can grow tissue and organ structures from stem cells, which can then be studied to find out how they function and how they are affected by different drugs.

Stem cells can also help in testing and developing new drugs. Instead of testing drugs on human volunteers, scientists can assess how a drug affects normal, healthy tissue by testing it on tissue grown from stem cells.

Stem Cell Therapy

What Are Stem Cells

Image credit: jarun011 from Getty Images

Cells, tissues and organs can sometimes be permanently damaged or lost by disease, injury and genetic conditions. Stem cells can be used as a way of generating new cells that can then be transplanted into the body to replace those that are damaged or lost.

Related: 8 Things You Want to Know About Stem Cell Therapy

Adult stem cells are currently used to treat some conditions, for example:

  • Blood stem cells are used to provide a source of healthy blood cells for people with some blood conditions, such as thalassaemia, and cancer patients who have lost their own blood stem cells during treatment.
  • Skin stem cells can be used to generate new skin for people with severe burns.

Stem cells could be guided to generate new organs for use in transplants. Damaged organs can be replaced by obtaining healthy organs from a donor. However, donated organs may be rejected by the body if the immune system considers it as something foreign. Therefore, induced pluripotent stem cells generated from the patient themselves could be used to grow new organs that would have a lower risk of being rejected by the body.

 

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