What are stem cells & why are they important?
Ultimately, every cell in the human body can be traced back to a fertilized egg that came into existence from the union of egg and sperm. But the body is made up of over 200 different types of cells, not just one. All of these cell types come from a pool of stem cells in the early embryo. During early development, as well as later in life, various types of stem cells give rise to the specialized or differentiated cells that carry out the specific functions of the body, such as skin, blood, muscle, and nerve cells.
Over the past two decades, scientists have been gradually deciphering the processes by which unspecialized stem cells become the many specialized cell types in the body. Stem cells can regenerate themselves or produce specialized cell types. This property makes stem cells appealing for scientists seeking to create medical treatments that replace lost or damaged cells.
Scientists primarily work with two kinds of stem cells from animals and humans: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, which have different functions and characteristics that will be explained in this document. Scientists discovered ways to obtain or derive stem cells from early mouse embryos more than 20 years ago. Many years of detailed study of the biology of mouse stem cells led to the discovery, in 1998, of how to isolate stem cells from human embryos and grow the cells in the laboratory. These are called human embryonic stem cells. The embryos used in these studies were created for infertility purposes through in vitro fertilization procedures and when they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor.
Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, stem cells in developing tissues give rise to the multiple specialized cell types that make up the heart, lung, skin, and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease.
It has been hypothesized by scientists that stem cells may, at some point in the future, become the basis for treating diseases such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and heart disease, and even eye disease.
Scientists want to study stem cells in the laboratory so they can learn about their essential properties and what makes them different from specialized cell types. As scientists learn more about stem cells, it may become possible to use the cells not just in cell-based therapies, but also for screening new drugs and toxins and understanding birth defects. However, as mentioned above, human embryonic stem cells have only been studied since 1998. Therefore, in order to develop such treatments scientists are intensively studying the fundamental properties of stem cells, which include:
- determining precisely how stem cells remain unspecialized and self renewing for many years; and
- identifying the signals that cause stem cells to become specialized cells.