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Stem cells are generally
early stage cells that have the ability to continuously
divide and differentiate (develop) into other specialized
types of cells. For example, stem cells can turn into liver
cells, skin cells, nerve cells etc.
Like a blank microchip that
can ultimately be programmed to perform any one of a number
of specialized tasks, stem cells are undifferentiated cells
that do not yet have a specific physiological function. When
proper conditions occur in the body or lab, stem cells begin
to develop into specialized tissues and organs. These cells
may have differing abilities to turn into more specialized
cells and are self-sustaining, replicating through cell
division. These unique features are why stem cell research
holds such promise for the treatment of life-threatening and
debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer,
Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes.
There are two main categories
of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells
which are harvested from the inner cell mass of the
blastocyst 7 – 10 days after fertilization and fetal stem
cells which are taken from the germline tissues that will
make up the gonads of aborted fetuses comprise embryonic
stem cells. Adult stem cells can be extracted from many
types of adult tissues such as fat, umbilical cord stem
cells that come from the blood of umbilical cords after
birth and placenta derived stem cells that have up to 10
times as many stem cells than from cord blood.
Finding out how cells store
information and transform themselves into other cells with
different properties is a fascinating topic for exploration.
Stem cells are so named because cells are derived from a
main stem or mother set of cells. This is similar to a tree
trunk that provides the stem from which other cells grow and
branch out into other types of cells.
Embryonic stem cells are technically called totipotent and
produce all types of tissue and can produce an entire person
(e.g. identical twins). Pluripotent stem cells exist in the
undifferentiated inner cell mass of the blastocyst and can
form any of over 200 different cell types found in the body.
Multipotent stem cells are derived from fetal tissue, cord
blood and adult stem cells. Although their ability to
differentiate is more limited than pluripotent stem cells,
they already have a track record of success in cell-based
therapies. The recently fertilized egg in very early stages
has only about 8 cells within it. The overall purpose of an
embryonic stem cell is to grow into a baby. The inner cells
called pluripotent can become almost any type of cell and
are taken from very early embryos.
Adult stem cells are
typically called multipotent cells like bone marrow cells
that can produce a wide range of different blood cells. The
primary purpose of anAdult stem cells is healing. Such cells
can be collected from bone marrow, fat cells, or the lining
of the nose, etc. Adult Stem cells can also be collected
from umbilical cords of recently born babies. Some of these
slightly undeveloped cells can be turned into other types of
cells (multipotent). Chemical signals from nearby cells can
direct the final cell type.