What is a stem cell?
Stem cell research has grown in leaps and bound in the medical field for the past three decades and results have showed that there is enormous potential from these works with regard to new medical treatments. Stem cells are cells that have the unique potential to develop into many types of cells which serve different purposes such as replacing damaged or worn-out specialised cells, healing a wound, etc. Unlike most other cells which are confined to performing a particular function, stem cells have two exceptional qualities; They can divide many times over to produce new cells. Secondly, 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.
What are the types of stem cells?
There are three main types of stems cells, and they are:
1. Embryonic stem cells
These are pluripotent cells (meaning they are capable of dividing into several stem cells or can become any type of cell in the body) that come from embryos that are three to five days old. In humans, the embryo is a ball of approximately 150 cells at this stage. It is known as a blastocyst.
2. Adult stem cells
Adult stem cells are stem cells that are found in small numbers in the tissue or organ throughout the most part of life. Unlike the embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells have a more limited ability to give rise to various cells of the body. The essential job of an adult stem cell in a living being is to maintain and fix the tissue in which they are found.
3. Induced pluripotent stem cells
Induced pluripotent stem cells or IPS cells for short are genetically reprogrammed adult cells. ‘Induced’ means that they are made in the lab by genetically altering regular adult cells and reprogramming them to act similarly to embryonic stem cells. Hence like embryonic stem cells, they are pluripotent.
Importance of stem cells
1. As a result of their unique ability to regenerate, doctors have performed stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants. For the transplants, stem cells were used to replace cells which were lost or damaged from chemotherapy or disease. Furthermore, harnessing their regenerative abilities can offer enormous potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease. However, further work needs to be done in reparative medicine to aid the understanding of how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease.
2. Findings from research on stem cells has been extremely important in helping scientists understand how organism develop from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms.
3. Lab studies of stem cells have helped scientists improve their knowledge about the essential properties of stem cells and the peculiarities which makes them different from specialized cell types. This knowledge is now being used by scientists in the lab to screen new drugs and to develop model systems to study normal growth and identify the causes of birth defects.
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