In past years, these nine little letters “stem cells” have caused much controversy and misunderstanding. Stem cells are primitive, undifferentiated cells that are able to divide and become specialized cells of the body such as liver cells, muscle cells, blood cells, and other cells with specific functions. Because they have not yet committed to a developmental path that will form a specific tissue or organ they are considered master cells with great potential. You may have wondered about what they are used for, and if they hold promise for helping you or a family member with serious disease or injury.
Stem cells are interesting and useful to doctors and scientists for several reasons:
- By watching the cells mature into different types of cells, they may give insight as to how diseases develop and what the critical factors are for prevention. The process is complex and involves the regulation of gene expression. Research is ongoing to further understand the molecular events and controls necessary for stem cells to become specialized cell types.
- Investigational medications could be tested on stem cells as well as differentiated cells to check for safety and quality before using new drugs in human patients.
- Stem cells are already used in bone marrow transplants to treat certain forms of cancer, and umbilical cord blood stem cells have also been used in cancer treatment. There are also studies underway for stem cells to regenerate and repair damaged tissues in patients with spinal cord injuries and scarring from burns and other trauma. Further work includes potential treatment for type 1 diabetes, arthritis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also cosmetic applications, using the patient’s own cells for facial and body enhancement, such as the stem cell facelift, and topical skin applications.
- Stem cells have future potential to grow new tissue for organ transplantation.
The different types of stem cells are:
- Embryonic stems cells
These come from embryos that are 4-5 days old, usually left-over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated. These were thought to have the most potential for scientific use because they had minimal exposure to potential environmental toxins and great potential for use in tissue and organ regeneration. They are able to self-renew and are “pluri-potent” meaning they become any type of cell in the future. They are also the source of great controversy and debate, since many of us believe that life begins at conception, and that manipulation of embryonic stem cells is unethical.A stem cell line is a cluster of cells that came from a single original stem cell. These cells can be frozen and stored for future use, so that scientists don’t need to get cells from the embryo itself.
- Adult stem cells
These cells can be found in bone marrow, blood and adipose tissue (fat) and are considered multi-potent. They can also be found in the placenta, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood. Cord blood can now be saved and frozen for potential future use by the patient.The more correct term for adult stem cells would be somatic stem cells, since these cells are not just found in adults. New research shows that certain types of adults stem cells can be programmed to act like embryonic stem cells, with great versatility and potential. For example, researchers were able to reprogram these cells in mice to become heart muscle cells. The new heart cells were injected into mice with heart failure, and these mice showed improved heart function and improved heart function and survival. This also has immunologic benefit, since the patient’s own cells may be used as the stem cell source and would likely minimize problems with rejection of regenerative tissue.Human stem cell extracts derived from skin have been used topically to repair and smoothing. It’s likely that the mechanism of action is epidermal growth factor, rather than the stem cells themselves. Other interesting topical arenas include use of peptides to potentially enhance stem cell production within the skin, and use of telomerase to preserve DNA length though multiple cycles of growth and division. It’s really unclear if these can truly penetrate to a cellular and even nuclear level; research is ongoing.
- Plant stem cells
The beauty world is abuzz with rejuvenating properties of rose, lilac and Swiss edelweiss apple stem cells. It’s not really clear how they might work. Might they signal skinstem cells to grow, divide and refresh? There is no data to support this theory yet. It’s most likely that their positive effects on skin are due to anti-oxidant properties, similar to Vitamin C and resveratrol (grape extract.).
Stem cell therapy will likely play a promising role in 21st century medicine, and enthusiasm grows as the potential for safe and ethical treatments are studied.