What are stem cells and how are they used?

Qian Qian Rachel Liu
23 January 2012

What are stem cells and how are they used?

You know that the human body is made of trillions of cells, but do you think all of your cells are the same? Certainly that is not the case. For example, your skin cells protect your body from harmful factors in the environment such as UV light while your red blood cells serve to bring oxygen from the lungs to the rest of your body. Where do all these different cells come from? The answer is – stem cells!

Did you know? There are four main types of stem cells: embryonic (from human embryos), fetal (from aborted fetal tissue), umbilical (from umbilical cords) and adult (from adult tissues)

A unique quality of stem cells is that they have the ability to grow into many different cell types depending on the type of signals they receive from their surrounding cells. For instance, a stem cell has the potential of developing into a kidney cell if it is placed in an environment where kidney cells grow, namely in the kidney. The same stem cell can develop into a bone cell if it is placed where bones grow.

Stem cells can be used in many different ways by scientists in research as well as by doctors in the clinic. Because all cells develop from stem cells, by studying stem cells, researchers are able to gain knowledge about the events that occur during development. They can learn about exactly what causes stem cells to develop into mature cells such as those in your liver. Next, with this information, scientists aim to be able to control the process of stem cell development.

The most important potential use of stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that can be transplanted into humans to replace those that were previously damaged. Consider this example. Neurons are not able to regenerate themselves once they have matured, therefore patients suffering from spinal cord injuries are not able to fully recover. If we can place pluripotent stem cells into the injured spinal cord, theoretically, the environment will cause these stem cells to generate new neurons and facilitate the healing of the initial injury.

Did you know? Stem cells are pluripotent, that is, they are able to develop into many different cell types.

The study of stem cells present exciting new possibilities in medicine. Hopefully you will use the knowledge you have already gained regarding stem cells to further your interest in this topic and one day contribute to a breakthrough in medical treatments using stem cells.

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Learn more about Stem Cells in our Stem Cells Featured Topic

This answer was written by Qian Qian (Rachel) Liu, a fourth year student in the Medical Laboratory Sciences Program at the University of British Columbia.

Photo Credit: National Science Foundation

Qian Qian Rachel Liu

I am a fourth year student in the Medical Laboratory Sciences Program at the University of British Columbia. Currently, I am conducting my own research project at the Department of Neuroscience at UBC.  I was born in China and have lived in Vancouver for 9 years. I am a big movie buff and enjoy spending time with my friends!

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