Stem Cells 101 – What are they? How can they help you?

The debate over human stem cells has ranged far and wide over the course of the last few decades.  As we consider the various innovations pertaining to stem cell research and the numerous ethical and political questions that pervade it, getting the real story — where the cells come from, what they do, and why they’re a game-changer in the science world — is challenging, to say the least. Sifting through the research findings, separating the inaccuracies from the truth, requires a remarkably well-kindled nonsense detector. But, luckily, you won’t need one. In this comprehensive overview of all things stem cells, we’ve done the screening for you.

What Are Stem Cells and What Do They Do?

Stem cells are a fascinating anomaly to the human body and are endowed with remarkable capabilities. Not only do they hold tremendous therapeutic value, they also hold great promise for the treating and potentially curing of debilitating diseases.

Our bodies are made up many different types of cells—more than 220 to be exact—ranging from skin cells and heart cells to bone cells and nerve cells, which all perform independent functions. We even have cells that circulate through our bodies just to combat infections and ensure that our bodies are functioning properly.

While it has garnered conflicting levels of support from the public at large, members of the scientific community collectively regard stem cells as the most promising advance in medicine since antibiotics.

These microscopic marvels have the potential to develop and differentiate into many different cell types in the body, and when extracted and grown under the right circumstances, can be used to repair damaged tissues and organs. Their ability to differentiate is one of their most defining properties, with the other being the ability to self-regenerate.

As long as the person is alive, stem cells are theoretically limitless when it comes to dividing and replenishing other cells. When a stem cell divides, each newly formed cell has the capacity to either remain a stem cell or convert into another type of cell with a more specific function, such as a neural cell, a red blood cell, or a liver cell.

This, however, is contingent on what type of stem cell we’re dealing with. Stem cells can typically be broadly classified as either embryonic, adult, or induced pluripotent.

Embryonic Stem Cells

Embryonic stem cells are obtained from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, a mainly hollow orb of cells that materialize three to five days after an egg cell is fertilized by a sperm. They are harvested during in-vitro fertilization, a process that involves fertilizing an embryo in a laboratory instead of inside the female body.

Embryonic cells are pluripotent, meaning they can yield every cell type in the fully formed body, apart from the placenta and umbilical cord. These cells provide a renewable resource for studying normal development and disease, and for testing drugs and other therapies, making them indispensable to the body. However, because embryonic stem cells are immature cells that multiply quickly, this poses a significant challenge when considering these types of cells for human therapeutic use.

Adult Stem Cells

All cells of the living human body are considered adult stem cells. Despite their misleading name, adult stem cells can also found in placenta, amniotic fluid, and cord blood, and are routinely housed for potential future use by infants and children. These stem cells are characterized as multipotent, which means that they can only repair and replace damaged tissue in the same area in which they are found. Adult stem cells can’t differentiate into as many other types of cells as embryonic stem cells can.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Scientists have recently discovered how to convert adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells. These cell types are called induced pluripotent stem cells. In this case, scientists genetically restructure the adult stem cells so they perform more like embryonic stem cells and differentiate into all types of specialized cells in the body. Thus, they can potentially produce new cells for any organ or tissue, ultimately helping researchers discover how diseases progress.

In fact, induced pluripotent cells are already in use as vehicles for drug development. They are also in widespread research and clinical trial use to induce the assembly of missing cells that will either pause or reverse significant and currently incurable degenerative diseases. Because these cells are amassed directly from the affected patient, there is no known risk of transplant rejection, eradicating the serious complications that arise during transplants.

What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Transplants are often what comes to mind when we think of harnessing the power of stem cells to treat various illnesses. In a stem cell transplant, embryonic stem cells are first specialized into the needed adult cell type. Then, those mature cells replace tissue that has been impaired by injury or disease. This type of treatment could be used to:

  • Restore neurons damaged by spina cord injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or other neurological ailments;
  • Generate insulin that could treat diabetes and heart muscle cells that could repair injury after a heart attack
  • Exchange essentially any organ or tissue that is diseased or damaged

But embryonic stem cell-based therapies can extend far beyond this. Theoretically, there’s no limit to the types of diseases that could be addressed with stem cell research. Any of them would have a significant impact on human health without having to transplant a single cell.

On the other hand, stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, promotes the reparative response of damaged biological structures by using stem cells or their derivatives.

How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help Me?

Stem cell research is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries consistently on the horizon. We possess more knowledge of stem cells now than we did just one year ago. Currently, we know that stem cell therapy has the ability to treat more than 80 disorders, from non-serious to life threatening. People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those afflicted with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis.  These all fall under the umbrella of neuromuscular, hematopoietic, and degenerative disorders.

  • Neuromuscular disorders impair the nerves that control your voluntary muscles. They are acquired or genetic conditions that affect some aspect of the neuromuscular system. Neuromuscular disorders tend to be progressive in nature, and often result in muscle feebleness and fatigue. Some of these disorders are present at birth, some develop during childhood, and others begin sometime during adulthood. Neuromuscular disorders may be hereditarily passed down or come about due to a spontaneous genetic mutation, or as a result of an abnormal immune response, inflammation, poisoning, toxins or tumors. And some simply have no identifiable or known cause.
  • A hematopoietic cell is an immature cell that can differentiate into all types of blood cells, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Hematopoietic disorders can develop with various systemic complications, manifesting in the form of leukaemia, thallassemia, aplastic anemia, MDS, sickle cell anemia, and storage disorders. Stem cells from a donor (either from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow) are known to reconstruct the defective bone marrow and permanently overcome the disorder.
  • Degenerative disorders are caused by a deterioration or wear and tear of bone, cartilage, muscle, fat or any other tissue, cell or organ. This could occur due to a variety of reasons, but it’s typically the process known as aging that is the leading cause. The disorders have a slow and gradual onset. But, once contracted, they can be enduring and painful. They are able to affect any organ of the body, with the most common degenerative disorders being diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, chronic renal failure, congestive cardiac failure, myocardial infarction, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

What is the Science Behind Stem Cell Therapy?

The process involves researchers cultivating stem cells in a lab. These stem cells are manipulated to covert into specific types of cells, such as blood cells, heart cells, muscle cells, or nerve cells.

The specialized cells can then be implanted into a human body. For example, if the person has heart disease, the cells could be injected directly into the heart muscle. The healthy transplanted heart cells could then help mend the underperforming heart muscle.

Researchers have already publicized that adult bone marrow cells can be influenced to become heart-like cells that can repair heart tissue in people, and more research is ongoing. You can access more studies to justify these claims, in addition to others regarding stem cell therapy, here:

Where Can I Find a Stem Cell Clinic?

Within certain limitations, almost anyone of any age can undergo stem cell therapy.  If the condition is one that will be responsive to regenerative medicine, there are very few cases in which a person would not be a suitable candidate. However, stem cell therapy is an area of medicine that’s still in its infancy. There is still much to learn about stem cells and their current applications as treatments are sometimes exaggerated by the media and other parties who don’t fully understand the nature of the science behind it, as well as by “clinics” looking to capitalize on the publicity by selling subpar treatments to chronically ill patients.

If you are strongly considering stem cell treatment, there is certain information you be privy to, including a detailed description of the treatment and the clinical data that supports it, the expected outcome, and the potential risks. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is this treatment routine for this specific disorder?
  • Is this treatment part of a larger clinical trial?
  • What is the process by which the stem cells identified, isolated, and grown?
  • What is the source of the stem cells?
  • Are the cells differentiated into specialized cells prior to therapy?
  • How are the cells distributed to the right part of the body?

If you need more clarification, don’t hesitate to ask. The physician involved should be well-versed about your disease or condition, as well as other treatment options available on the market.

Remember, that the success of your treatment is directly linked to your doctor’s experience, knowledge, and training with the procedure and the materials being used.

If you are strongly contemplating undergoing stem cell therapy, you can access our database of highly qualified physicians and reputable clinics here.

Stem cell research holds tremendous promise for medical treatments, but scientists still have much to learn about how stem cells, and the specialized cells they generate, function in the body, and their ability to properly heal.

The good news is that there is a well-founded path by which scientific discoveries are advanced into new medical treatments. Clinical translation is the multi-step process of converting these findings made in the laboratory into real-world therapies that are made accessible to the average person. This process involves testing a budding new  treatment in a series of tests to assess its safety and effectiveness. When tested on patients in the context of a laborious clinical trial, many promising new treatments fail to be medically sound. So, conducting your own research is imperative.

Also, be sure to continue to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and have routine health exams, such as periodic health exams. Should clinical trials be approved, the healthiest people will be the ones called upon to participate.

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