Over the past few decades, new mothers have been offered the opportunity to preserve blood from their newborn’s umbilical cord or amniotic fluid from amniocentesis. These fluids provide a source of perinatal stem cells that can differentiate into cells that form all kinds of systems in the body. Growing stem cells in the lab may help doctors understand how to treat diseases or repair tissues in the future.
Adult stem cells may still reside in bone marrow, offering the added potential to provide treatment for diseases or rejuvenation for damaged tissues. Adult stem cells aren’t as good at differentiation as perinatal or embryonic stem cells and may be affected by environmental toxins or problems that happened when the cells replicate themselves to create “daughter” cells. Still, stem cell researchers are working to develop new therapies for cancer and other diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease. Medical researchers continue to explore how stem cells can be used in medicine and are learning that adult stem cells may be more versatile than they previously thought.
Master Cells with Unique Abilities
Stem cells are often referred to as the body’s building blocks or master cells. They are the only kinds of cells in the body that can turn into other types of cells. Studying how stem cells differentiate enables medical researchers to develop targeted therapies for cancer or grow cells that could regenerate cells for specific damaged organs.
Stem Cells Increase Understanding of Disease
Observing how stem cells differentiate themselves into specialized cells to form nerves, heart muscle tissues, and skin cells help doctors understand healthy cells and learn how different diseases develop. Researchers also use stem cells to test new drug therapies for toxicity.
Current and Future Medical Uses
Perhaps the most well-known use for stem cells is in transplants. Here, adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood replace cells damaged by blood-related diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
In the future, researchers may use specialized equipment called bioreactors to grow human tissues or even complete organs, and it all starts with stem cells. Research is ongoing, and the days of tissue regeneration are still in their infancy. However, researchers can use stem cells in medicine to create amazing advancements.
Some people feel that stem cell research is controversial. The FDA has warned patients to beware of unapproved therapies that claim to use stem cells to treat disease. Likewise, the Mayo Clinic has a good explanation of why embryonic stem cells are a source of contention when compared to adult or perinatal cells—embryonic cells come from very new embryos that have never been implanted to grow into fetuses within a woman’s womb. Both are good sources to learn more about how stem cells can be used in medicine.