General information on Stem Cells
Adult and Embryonic stem cells - what's the difference?
The difference between an embryonic stem cell and an adult stem cell relates to the extent to which they can change themselves into different cell types. An embryonic stem cell is capable of changing itself into everyone of the several hundred different cell types that make up the human body. So it is in a sense we call it a very primitive cell. An adult stem cell is already committed so to speak and has a much more limited repertoire of pathways that it can go down so to speak. So the therapeutic potential of the embryonic stem cell is probably very broad and the therapeutic potential of the adult stem cell is much narrower.
Can you briefly describe a stem cell?
A stem cell is essentially a repair cell, it is type of cell that is available to repair tissues if they are injured or damaged as a result of disease.
What does a stem cell look like?
Watch a video of a neural stem cell dividing
(courtesy of Fred H Gage Laboratory, Salk Institiute, CA, USA)
Why are scientists excited about stem cell research?
The whole excitement about stem cell therapy arose about twenty years ago when it became apparent that these cells could potentially be used to treat a number of human diseases for which there were very few treatment options. It has been clear for a number of decades that certain stem cells can be used very successfully to treat malignancies of the blood or very severe anaemia’s and can literally save lives. It has become clear more recently that other types of stem cells can also be used to treat very serious diseases. So the excitement that we feel relates to the growing body of evidence that there is that a whole new type of medical treatment will become available involving the use living stem cells to treat patients.
Where do we find them?
We find adult stem cells in many different tissues. Probably one of the richest sources of stem cells in the human for instance is the bone marrow and it is clear that there are several different types of stem cells in the bone marrow. However they do exist in a number of other tissues as well, they exist in the circulating blood system, they exist in the liver, they exist in skeletal muscle and so on.
What are the potential benefits?
Currently we see a number of very serious diseases which have been successfully treated using stem cell therapy and this includes a number of immune disorders and a number of blood disorders. In the future it seems possible that stem cells can be used for cardiac repair for instance, that is to repair the heart following a heart attack. And if this turns out to be the case than that is enormously exciting possibility where literally millions of people world wide will be treated with stem cells. We also see evidence accumulating that stem cells can be used to treat arthritic diseases and again if this pans out this means that millions and millions of patients will want to avail of stem cell therapy in the future. That means that it will become part of routine medical practice if the research that we are doing currently is successful, this will become part of routine medical practice, to have stem cells available to treat patients when they walk into the clinic.
What are scientist’s interest in stem cells?
Stem cells are remarkable cells and it is becoming more apparent that they have extraordinary properties which we are beginning to understand now. In particular they have the ability to change themselves and this has never been described before in any other type of cell. Stem cells have the ability to change themselves into different cell types, depending on the particular environment in which they are found. So a stem cell from the bone marrow for instance can change itself into other cell types and then contribute to the repair of specific tissues.