What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells. Through self-renewal, these cells either become more stem cells or other cells with a specific function—such as heart, brain, blood, or bone cells. Stem cells are the only cell in the human body capable of generating new cells.

What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Pluripotent stem cells used to generate muscle blood and neural cells. Digital illustration.
Pluripotent stem cells used to generate muscle blood and neural cells. Digital illustration.

Also known as regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy promotes the repair response of diseased, dysfunctional, or injured tissue using stem cells or their derivatives. Since the supply of organ donors is limited, stem cell therapy is being seen as the next step in organ transplantation.

These stem cells, which researchers grow in a lab, are manipulated to specialize into certain types of specialized cells, such as heart muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells. The manipulated cells can then be implanted into a person. Specialized heart cells, for example, could be injected into the heart muscle of a patient with heart disease. The healthy transplanted heart muscle cells could then contribute to repairing defective heart muscle.

Myths About Stem Cells and Research

Now that we’ve covered the bases on stem cell therapy, let’s look at some stem cell myths that are simply not true:

Stem cell research is illegal

Stem cell research in the United States is perfectly legal, though the research utilizing embryonic cells is being seriously debated.

Back in 2013, The National Institutes of Health funded nearly $1.3 billion worth of stem cell research. The state of Ohio has pulled ahead by donating $25 million to the National Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, a collaboration among Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Athersys Inc., and The Ohio State University. It happens to be the fifth-largest stem cell research institute in the country.

Stems Cells are All the Same

Not everyone is familiar with what stem cells are and what they do. Stem cells are the body’s internal repair system, which replaces dead or diseased cells with new, healthy cells to ensure normal function of the body. There’s a distinct differentiation embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell in your body, and that versatility is powerful and valuable. Unfortunately, controversy has arisen because of their origin—the vast majority are donated from fertility clinics and were slated for destruction.

Since 1998, umbilical cord stem cells which are harvested from a newborn’s umbilical cord have been successfully used to treat leukemia and other blood disorders. Considered adult stem cells, umbilical cord cells are discarded as medical waste in many instances if not cryo-preserved. Because most umbilical cords are discarded as medical waste, there is rarely any controversy surrounding their collection.

Already selected for their specialty, adult stem cells are found throughout the body and they form only certain tissue cells, maintaining the body’s systems as you age.

Stem Cells are a Universal Cure

With more than one million blood stem cell transplants across the world, blood stem cell transplantation using stem blood cells from sources such as bone marrow has been performed for more than 50 years. The treatment of bone marrow failures, blood cancers, blood disorders, metabolic diseases, immune deficiencies, and autoimmune diseases have improved immensely.

Certainly, stem cell therapies are becoming as important to the medical field as antibiotics were for the 20th century. However, every degenerative condition isn’t solved through stem cell procedures are. Patients need to know upfront what these techniques can and cannot do.

It’s hoped stem cells could one day heal ailing hearts, repair damaged muscles, reduce inflammatory bowel disease symptoms and improve transplant outcomes. Discarded hip joints after replacement surgery and fat cells removed after liposuction are being investigated by researchers as other sources for stem cell collection. What once was a small stream of discoveries has turned into a river of many possibilities.