Stem cells are the foundation for every single cell and tissue found within the human body and without them the healing process just wouldn’t be the same. For decades, scientists and doctors have been trying to determine the full scope of their benefits in the use of modern medicine and science today.
We all begin as a single celled organism that eventually divides itself into more cells. Since we are complicated multicellular beings, these cells begin to take on specialized functions within the body, i.e. red blood cells or skin cells, this process is known as differentiation. When a cell becomes differentiated, it can only produce or divide itself into more of the same type of cells, for example a skin cell can only produce more skin cells. When tissues become damaged by injury or disease, these specialized cells are only able to produce a limited amount of copies before they start to break down and disappear altogether, with no way of ever bringing them back.
Stem cells are unique in the fact that they are cells that haven’t gone through the differentiation process. Since they have no specialized role, they are able to adapt into many different cell types. Also, they are able to produce an almost infinite amount of copies without breaking down. When tissue is damaged by injury or disease, such as a traumatic brain injury or cancer, doctors use these stem cells to replace those specialized cells that have ultimately diminished beyond repair. By using stem cells for the treatment of various conditions, doctors are able to help patients in ways they wouldn't have been able to before.
While there are a few different types of stem cells, they generally are broken down into three separate categories, which include; adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Multipotent Stem Cells
Adult stem cells, also known as somatic or tissue specific stem cells, are stem cells that are multipotent, meaning they can only produce more cells from the area in which they were derived. Adult stem cells are found naturally in various parts of the body, like bone marrow or the brain, with their main purpose being to maintain and repair tissue damaged from normal aging or injury in that specific region or organ. Through continued research, scientists are finding that they are more prevalent than previously thought.
The most commonly used adult stem cells are hematopoietic stem cells, stem cells that give rise to other cells found in the blood. These cells are able to develop into any cell found within the blood, such as red blood cells and platelets. These are often used in the treatment of cancer patients whose blood cells have been damaged by chemotherapy and radiation.
Mesenchymal stem cells are another type of multipotent stem cell that can produce different cell types relating to the skeletal system, including bone cells, cartilage cells, fat cells, and muscle cells. They have successfully been used in the treatment for multiple sclerosis and various autoimmune disorders.
Pluripotent Stem Cells
The two other main types of stem cells are known as pluripotent stem cells, they are less specialized than adult stem cells and are less limited in the types of cells they can produce. Embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) differ from adult stem cells in the fact that they are both pluripotent, meaning that they have the ability to develop into the majority of other cells types found within the body.
The first type of pluripotent stem cells, and perhaps the most controversial, are the human embryonic stem cells. Since there is such high controversy surrounding human embryonic stem cells, most reputable practitioners do not use them. However, the embryonic stem cells that are being used in research today are acquired through unused embryos produced by an in vitro fertilization process and later donated to science. These embryonic stem cells are extracted from the blastocyst, a mostly hollow ball of cells that is formed around 3 to 5 days after fertilization. Normally, this blastocyst would develop into all of the specialized cells later found inside the body but by extracting the cells before they become differentiated they are able to retain their pluripotent abilities.
Induced pluripotent stem cells are tissue specific stem cells that are manipulated in a laboratory to act as though they are embryonic stem cells. First discovered in 2006 by Shinya Shamanaka, he showed that tissue specific stem cells can be programmed to act as pluripotent stem cells. Since their discovery, induced pluripotent stem cells have shown high promise in the field of regenerative medicine.
Although embryonic stem cells have been a valuable tool in the growth of knowledge and understanding about the treatment of disease and injury, the use of them involves the manipulation of an embryo, causing a well-known controversy on whether or not they should be used. Induced pluripotent stem cells are taken from mature tissue and then manipulated into having pluripotent capabilities. Also, the adult stem cells that are manipulated into being pluripotent can be taken directly from the patient themselves instead of using a donor embryo, thus reducing the risk of complications and entirely eliminating the controversy over using them.
While they have many similarities in the fact that they are both pluripotent and with the discovery of them being relatively new, scientists are still trying to determine all of the differences between embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Potential Uses for Pluripotent Stem Cells
Stem cell research is still new in terms of being able to comprehend the full scope of how impactful they can be to the research and medical fields, pluripotent stem cells have been successful in reducing symptoms of certain diseases, treating various illnesses or repairing damaged tissues. Some of these conditions include:
- Alzheimer's Disease
- Parkinson's Disease
- Cerebral Palsy
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Many more
Many clinical trials are taking advantage of the unique capabilities of stem cells to better understand disease and are finding new ways of treating them, developing methods with stem cells that could eliminate the need for medications with risky side effects or harmful procedures. If you are wondering whether stem cell therapy can help you or a loved one, reach out to an experienced clinic today!