What Is a Stem Cell?
What Is a Stem Cell?

Stem cell treatments are receiving a lot of attention in the science news lately. In just the past few weeks, researchers have reported that stem cells from urine have been used to grow teeth in China, Japanese researchers have grown functioning liver “buds” using stem cells and a Dutch scientist has grown edible meat in the lab from cow stem cells. Other scientists have figured out how to regress adult stem cells so that they have the capacity to grow any kind of body cell, and are using these cultured or induced pluripotent stem cells to study disease and test new treatments against diseases and disorders. Still, many people are confused about the origins of stem cells. So.. what is a stem cell and why are they being hailed as one of the most important medical breakthroughs in generations?

What Is a Stem Cell?

Stem cells are a specific type of cell found in the body. There are two basic types of stem cells. In laymen’s terms, they are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. In medical terminology, they are called pluripotent and multipotent stem cells.

A Brief Background

The human body is made up of hundreds of different kinds of cells, each of them specialized to do a specific job. Most cells in our bodies do not reproduce or replicate themselves. Others can only make exact copies of themselves. Stem cells can make both exact copies of themselves and cells that are more specialized than they are. Pluripotent stem cells have the capability to produce nearly any type of cell in the human body. Multipotent stem cells are limited to only producing cells in a certain lineage. An easy metaphor is to think of the different types of stem cells as templates. A pluripotent stem cell is like a sheet of lined paper: you can write just about anything on it. A multipotent stem cell is like a template: it has some of the details already filled in but you can still use it to make several different kinds of documents.

What Is a Stem Cell Treatment?

There are many different kinds of stem cell treatments, both already in use and being developed. They include stem cell transplants and injections, as well as stem cell treatments using cord blood and placental tissue. Some doctors are using stem cells to treat patients. Others are using stem cells in the lab to develop new treatments. While most doctors and researchers caution that it will be many years before we see consistent, safe treatments involving the use of stem cells, the progress toward healing treatments using the body’s own healing mechanism – stem cells – is exciting to all those who are affected by intractable diseases and conditions.

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