Stem Cells What They Are and What Is New

stem cells

Stem cells are things that most people have heard of, but many may not know what they are or what new application has been found for them. Cells, in general, are the smallest parts that make up all organisms. They are the building blocks to everything. Stem cells have the ability to divide infinitely and to develop into specialized units. They are blank building blocks that can be used to construct nearly anything with their unique ability to turn into things like brain, muscle and cardiac cells. They also can work inside tissue to repair damage when needed.

Stem cells are present in human embryos and divide into the specialized systems required to create a human being. They are not present only in these early stages, but have also been found in adults. These types of cells are divided into two categories, the adult somatic stem cells and the embryonic stem cells.

The embryonic stem cells divide, creating new identical daughter cells, that can then develop into what they are needed to be. These can be grown for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilization. One of the things that make them so unique is their ability to replicate so often for so long. Other cells, like nerve and blood cells, are not capable of multiplying in this way. Stem cells in the laboratory setting can make millions of copies over a period of just a few months.

Embryonic cells vary from somatic as they are able to develop into different cells for different parts of the body. Adult, or somatic, stem cells are a rare occurrence. These cells are able to divide into new ones, and to sometimes repair tissue, but only on a limited basis. Generally, somatic stem cells can only duplicate the type of cells from which they originate, so that tissues in the stomach can only replicate stomach cells. The research of this type of cell is relatively new and more investigation into them is needed.

Research in the field of stem cells began a little over 30 years ago, in 1981. The first studies were completed using mice. More than two decades of research took place before scientist were able to derive stem cells from human embryos in 1998.  The discovery of the adult stem cell was not made until 2006.

This year, there have been new breakthroughs in the field. Scientists have been able to clone embryos to make the stem cells match perfectly to a specific person. The process allows for patients of any age to have their cells cloned. To do this, they take the nucleus, or dense center, of a person’s skin cell out and implant it into an egg. The equipment used to empty the egg’s content, and replace it with the DNA from a person’s skin cell is very small – smaller than a human hair.

Another advancement made in the last year is the use of human stem cells in re-growing cells in monkey hearts. The damaged hearts were injected with human cardiac stem cells. There was up to 40 percent regeneration of dead tissue over three months. The hearts were even able to produce electromechanical function.

Research continues every day. Scientists are making advancements with stem cells that can lead to new treatments for diseases and they are only at the tip of the iceberg for what they believe they will be able to do. The potential for use of these cells in treatment of cardiac disease, diabetes and birth defects is only now being realized.

By Latasha Alvaro

National Institutes of Health