Stem cells are in the news a lot—and are sometimes a source of controversy—but what do they do?
You’re probably aware that they can treat various medical conditions, but you may not know how they do. That’s why we’ve put together a list of seven important facts about stem cells that you may not already know.
Sound interesting? Keep reading below to get the lowdown on stem cells.
1. There Are Four Main Classes
The four main classes of stem cells are all a little different. They come from different sources and vary in their functions slightly, but they’re all useful.
Totipotent Stem Cells
These stem cells would eventually develop into the cells that make up an embryo and then a fetus. For example, a zygote and the cells just after fertilization would be totipotent.
Multipotent Stem Cells
These are able to develop into many different types of cells, but only when part of the same tissue or organ. Examples include bone marrow cells and other adult stem cells.
Pluripotent Stem Cells
Pluripotent cells include embryonic stem cells. They can turn into any type of cell, and so are often referred to as “blank slates.” There are plenty of exciting possibilities when it comes to pluripotent stem cell research.
Unipotent Stem Cells
These stem cells are able to not only self-renew but also produce single mature cell types. Sperm-producing cells are just one example of unipotent stem cells.
2. Stem Cells Can Treat Multiple Conditions
You’re probably aware that stem cells can treat many different conditions, but how many?
What scientists are trying to do is find out how undifferentiated stem cells become differentiated. This is because many serious conditions, including cancer, are a result of abnormal cell differentiation and division.
There are lots of people out there who need tissues and organs from donors—more than are actually available. So the hope is that stem cells will be used for cell-based therapies.
Conditions that stem cells can help are as varied as Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. This is why stem cell research is vitally important.
3. Research Is Being Done With Stem Cells and Heart Disease
At Professor Kenneth Chien‘s lab at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the focus is on understanding heart development “at the molecular and cellular level.”
Researchers are using stem cells from mice and rats, non-human primates, and humans to study heart development, getting an atlas of cell type links in the human heart as it develops.
They’re also looking at embryonic stem cells to develop cardiac muscle cells amongst others. The goal is to generate heart muscle ‘patches’ which can be used for patients with heart disease.
4. There Are Stem Cells in the Bloodstream
The majority of blood stem cells appear in bone marrow, but some—known as peripheral blood stem cells—are present in the bloodstream. As a result, they can be harvested from samples of blood cells.
This type of stem cell can make up a lot of different cells, including red blood cells, platelets, lymphocytes, and granulocytes. Between them, they get blood around the body, heal cuts, and even protect your immune system too.
5. Stem Cells Harvested From Umbilical Cords
Yes, stem cells can also be harvested from umbilical cords. As a result, some parents are choosing to preserve the stem cells from their baby’s umbilical cord in the hope that it could help them fight potential diseases.
The samples containing stem cells are stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celcius. These are often linked to video alarms for monitoring.
When hematopoietic stem cells are harvested from umbilical cords, they’re new and more powerful than bone marrow stem cells. More research is being carried out on stem cells from umbilical cords. But we know that they can help the baby if needed, and may also be able to benefit their parents and siblings too.
6. Adult Stem Cells Are Not as Versatile
Adult stem cells definitely have their uses but aren’t thought to be as versatile as embryonic stem cells and other younger stem cells too.
They’re more likely to contain abnormalities, which could stem from environmental factors, or simply errors picked up as the cells replicate. They probably also aren’t as easy to manipulate as embryonic stem cells, so fewer cell types will be able to be produced from them.
In contrast, embryonic stem cells can divide into further stem cells or become virtually any type of cell. Hence, they can be used to repair or regenerate organs or tissues that may be diseased.
7. Therapeutic Cloning Is Another Technique
Also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, therapeutic cloning is a technique that allows researchers to create versatile stem cells that are independent of fertilized eggs.
How does it work? The nucleus of an unfertilized egg will be removed, and the nucleus of a donor’s cell will be removed too. The latter nucleus will then be injected into the egg in place of the removed nucleus, using nuclear transfer.
From here, the egg divides and forms a blastocyst. Then it creates a line of stem cells that are identical, genetically speaking, to the donor’s cells.
Researchers haven’t yet been able to carry out therapeutic cloning with humans, but they’ve done so with other species previously. That said, scientists have been able to create human pluripotent stem cells by altering the process.
Research is ongoing, so who knows where we’ll be in the near future?
Interesting Facts About Stem Cells
It’s impossible to cover everything there is to know about stem cells in one article, as it’s such a vast topic that there’s so much more to explore.
However, these are seven important facts about stem cells that we think are great to know, and can help your understanding of this subject. What else do you know about stem cells, and where do you think research will take us in the future?
If you’re looking for facts about more interesting topics, be sure to check out the rest of the posts on our site!