In recent years, the phrase
'stem cells' has become a popular and widely published
scientific topic. Debate and discussions about stem cells
are everywhere, including magazines, television, radio and
the Internet. Complicating the topic even more are the
political and government policies around stem cell research.
For many people in the general public, however, the topic is
a confusing one and it can be difficult to understand and
interpret information about stem cells. You may still be
unsure just what stem cells are or what relevance they have
to your daily life and well-being.
What is a Cell?
A cell is a very basic structural and functional unit of
life. While bacteria are unicellular because they consist of
only one cell, humans are considered multi-cellular in that
they have literally trillions of cells. Your cells are
responsible for everything that you do, whether that is
taking in nutrients, providing energy for you to go about
your day, or reproducing. Cells in your body have many
different functions and they 'stem' from simpler cells that
are not yet specialized. These simpler cells are known as
stem cells. What this means is that a stem cell is basically
a cell that does not yet have a specific job in the body.
The word 'simple' is even a bit deceiving because it implies
that these cells are not important, which is far from the
What Makes Stem Cells
Stem cells have key features that separate them from other
types of cells. They are:
Unspecialized and renew
themselves by dividing
Able, under specific
conditions, to become cells with specialized jobs (e.g.
When a stem cell divides, the new cell can become a
different cell with a more specific function, such as a
heart cell, or it can remain a stem cell. Stem cells are
vital to humans for numerous reasons. In the primary stages
of embryo development, a tiny cluster of approximately
thirty cells eventually leads to hundreds of extremely
specialized cells that are necessary for adult life. As the
fetus develops, stem cells become the many specialized cells
that constitute tissues such as heart and skin. In fact,
groups of stem cells in some adult tissues also give rise to
replacement cells that are destroyed through injury, disease
What are we Learning About
Current stem cell research is teaching us how humans develop
from a single cell so we can better understand when things
go wrong, leading to disease. Knowledge is also growing with
regards to how healthy cells can replace diseased or
otherwise damaged cells in the body. This will allow for
medical therapies to create compatible cell lines to replace
diseased cells in the body.
Why Should I Even Care About
Stem cells have an enormous potential to benefit different
areas of disease research and management. By learning more
about stem cells, scientists and the public can understand
how these multi-purpose cells can develop into the specific
and specialized cells that make humans what they are today.
By studying stem cells, we can learn about the actual
process that occurs from a single stem cell to a huge array
of specialized cells that let us live and function each day.
Countless devastating and serious diseases such as cancer
are thought to occur at some point in the division process
of a stem cell to a specialized cell. Through research and
knowledge about the development of a normal stem cell,
scientists can better learn how to correct the 'mistakes'
that occur and lead to such diseases. With 1 in 3 people
developing cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 4 dying from
cancer, stem cells may have the ability to save a great many
lives. When researchers are able to identify exactly why
cells become cancerous and how, they can then find ways to
prevent the change occurring in the first place as well as
develop drugs to treat the disease.
Stem cells also have therapeutic potential for creating
tissues. The waiting lists for organ donation are
overwhelming and many people die whilst waiting for an organ
transplant. Certain types of stem cells may also provide a
source of cells to treat a broad range of conditions such as
Parkinson's disease, burns, diabetes and cardiovascular
Stem cells are clearly an intriguing and promising area of
science but like many fields of interest, their use prompts
questions and controversy. Stem cells are already being used
today to treat medical conditions that you or a loved one
may suffer from and with continued research; we can all
learn more details about what stem cells are and how they
can improve our lives.
(Author: Ian Murnaghan - Explore Stem Cells)