Research into stem cells, cells that can grow into other different or specialised cell types, has improved our understanding of how tissues in our body develop, are maintained and repaired when damaged.
Stem cells come from:
- embryos – embryonic stem cells can divide into stem cells or become any cell type in the body (i.e. they are pluripotent)
- adult tissues – these stem cells are found in most adult tissue including the bone marrow, but these cells do not differentiate into as many types of cells as embryonic stem cells.
Learning how to control stem cell function may provide insights into how to manipulate these cells to treat various diseases and conditions.
Using stem cells to treat disease
The advent of breakthroughs in stem cell research has made possible the potential for new treatments. These include using stem cells to:
- potentially repair and replace damaged tissues and organs (regenerative medicine or stem cell therapy) – stem cells are treated to become specialised cell types (e.g. heart muscle cells, blood cells or nerve cells) and these are transplanted to replace damaged or diseased cells
- test new drugs for their safety and effectiveness before using them in people
- replace cells damaged by cancer treatment or by cancer – blood stem cells have been transplanted into people who have blood-related cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma and multiple myeloma
- create cellular therapies to treat and potentially cure diseases such type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Image caption: The intricate beauty of a stem cell up close.