Stem Cells: The Future of Medicine


We often hear about the amazing potential of “stem cells”, and how they will revolutionize the human diseases treatment; allowing us to grow new organs, regenerate our bodies, and perhaps even remain youthful forever!

Using stem cells as our own special “repair kits”, scientists have successfully grown and implanted artificial skin, bladders, tracheas, kidneys—and even a new lung as we speak—paving the way for creating a very special type of personalized regenerative medicine, in which we could completely replace any part of body organs that were damaged by injury or disease with new, stem cell grown ones.

Aside from regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, scientists are also using stem cells in other fields of medicine—from helping us better understand how diseases develop and spread, to serving as accurate screens for new drugs, to developing cell-based therapies for diabetes, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and many other conditions that affect millions of people.

What is it about stem cells that make them so incredibly powerful? Also, how are they different from ordinary cells?

The power of stem cells is derived from their remarkable ability to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth.

In many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics.

First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue or organ-specific cells with special functions.

In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.

Until recently, scientists primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells from animals and humans: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic “somatic” or “adult” stem cells.

In 2006, Nobel Prize winner researchers made a breakthrough by identifying conditions that would allow some specialized adult cells to be "reprogrammed" genetically to assume a stem cell-like state. This new type of stem cell is known as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs).

Since iPSCs can be derived directly from adult tissues, they do not only bypass the need for embryos, but can also be made in a patient-matched manner. This means that each individual could have their own pluripotent stem cell line that can be used for transplants and the treatment of diseases, without the risk of rejection; providing the basis for individual personalized medicine.


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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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