The future of stem cell research

According to the Washington post, stem cell research “is one of science’s most promising fields.” Scientists believes that one day, “stem cells may (…) be used to repair or replace tissues and organs lost to age or disease,” though most effective therapies are still far away.  

So before we begin, let’s define what stem cell research is. “Stem cells are the body’s raw materials – cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated,” informs the Mayo Clinic. “Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells. No other cell in the body has the natural ability to generate new cell types.”  

So essentially, stem cells are like a blank canvas that can develop into many different types of cells within the body. They are an essential part to repairing damages caused in the body, and scientists are trying to find a way to further their research in the medical field: their function and behaviour can be uses to understand why certain cancers and defects form, but also their potential can be harnessed to develop new and ground-breaking therapies to cure many diseases. For example, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, certain spinal cord injuries, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and the list continues. Stem cells can range from brain cells to muscle tissue. 

Stem cells can actually be divided into two types of cells: Embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Embryonic cells, usually a result of in vitro fertilization procedures where those cells are donated to science, come from unused embryos. These stem cells have a great capacity to turn into any one type of cell. Adult stem cells can be divided into two groups themselves. One type comes from fully developed tissues, like the brain, skin, and bone marrow. They only have the ability to turn into one type of cell. For example, a stem cell that came from a stomach cell is only going to be able to produce another stomach cell. The second type is called pluripotent cells, and their characteristics resemble more the embryonic stem cells, however they have been altered in a lab and have a couple of differences.  

As mentioned before, scientists believe that stem cells will be used to help create new tissues! Stanford’s Children Health Hospital helped to give a specific example of this new and exciting future. Currently, the only stems cells that can be used to treat disease are hematopoietic stem cells. These are stem cells that are found in bone marrow and can help form blood proteins. These cells are immature and are able to replicate blood cells that will mature and adapt based on their role and function. They are actually used in very important bone marrow transplant procedures! They help cancer patients recover form chemotherapy and radiation therapy to make new blood cells, as well as help treat others with bone marrow conditions and deficiencies.  

However, there are still many unknowns that scientists are still trying to figure out before we can even master their use. Researchers much first determine how some types of these stem cells develop, and many can contain errors, such as DNA problems or growth problems, making them hard to reproduce in a lab. Many of them also are only found in very small amounts. 

All in all, stem cell research is making headway in the progress of medical therapy and treatments and holds a promising future in scientific research. Though we are years away and these challenges may pose a bleak cloud over the potential of these cells, a new, bright, and talented generation is underway…