A stem cell is a primitive cell that has the ability to differentiate, or develop into, various cell types. Medical experts have been working to demonstrate the practical applications of this ability to their peers and to the public. There are different types of these cells depending on their origin and power to differentiate. Stem cells have already been utilized in bone marrow transplants.
A stem cell can be thought of as a basic, unspecialized cell that is able to divide and become specialized cells of the body, such as white blood cells, red blood cells, liver cells and muscle cells. They are undifferentiated because they have not yet committed to a developmental path for a specific organ or tissue. The process of changing into a specific unit type is known as differentiation. In some areas of the body, the cells divide regularly to repair and renew existing tissue. The gastrointestinal tract and bone marrow provide examples of this.
The most readily understood case of a stem cell in humans is the fertilized egg, or zygote. A zygote is an individual cell that is formed when a sperm unites with an ovum. The cells begin to divide and become specialized until they make a full organism. The process where stem cells commit to a specialization is complex and requires the regulation of gene expression. Research is ongoing to further understand how stem cells work and their potential capabilities.
Members of the medical community believe that the ability for stem cells to become a unit of any organ or tissue gives them the power to heal many of the incurable diseases afflicting large numbers of the population. Therapies that utilize stem cells are being developed. Many factors have to be considered when investigating therapy strategy with these cells. The appropriate type of stem cell must be chosen (given that there are many different types), the cells must be matched to the recipient so the patient’s immune system doesn’t destroy them, and there is the requirement for an effective and safe delivery system of the stem cells to the desired location of the body.
The potential capabilities of stem cells are believed to include curing diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. All of these diseases and others involve damaged tissue, and even damaged organs, which stem cells are hypothesized to be able to heal effectively and safely. In one experiment, doctors developed a spray that could be applied to a burned section of skin, and overnight the skin was completely rejuvenated. It was tested on an injured military official who suffered a severe burn on his arm that was impossible to repair with skin grafts. The spray was successful and the arm was healed completely. According to medical officials, stem cells can also be utilized to test new medicines that could be dangerous to human test subjects. However, due to the practice of retrieving stem cells from fetuses, there has been opposition to the use of stem cells in mainstream medical rehabilitation and therapy.
By Andres Loubriel