What are Stem Cells and What is Their Role in Regenerative Medicine?
You have probably heard people talk about “stem cells” but maybe thought that they below in the realm of science fiction rather than reality. However, stem cells are an important feature of the emerging field of regenerative medicine. In this branch of medicine, experts like Dr. Kwang Yul Cha explore the possibility of helping the body to heal itself using engineered or regenerated cells, tissues and organs.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are cells that have the special ability to become or create other kinds of cells. One of the most important kinds of stem cell is the embryonic stem cell that is the start of human life. Embryonic stem cells are found in 4-5 day old embryos, and are the basis for every other cell in the human body. Another very vital kind of stem cell is the tissue stem cell. These kinds of stem cells are not able to make all the cells in the body, but they are able to make the cell or cells in the system or organ in which they are found.
So, stem cells are special cells in the body that can either create different kinds of specialized cells or that can reproduce themselves to create more of the same kind of cell. Scientists have learned how to activate genes in adults to stimulate the production of stem cells that, like embryonic stem cells, have the potential to become any cell in the body. This has been an important development because it means that research on these powerful cells can be done without the need for human embryos.
Why Are Stem Cells Important?
One of the most important aspects of regenerative medicine is the use of the body’s own cells as a way to create structures to help rebuild or repair damaged tissues. If science can better understand how stem cells function, stem cell therapies can be used to treat diseases – including aging – that are caused by dying or damaged cells by replacing those cells with new ones created using stem cells.
How Are Stem Cells Currently Being Used?
Although stem cell therapies are still being developed and studied, there are treatments currently using stem cells that have helped many people.
Skin Grafts: skin stem cells have been used for decades to create “artificial” skin for patients with life-threatening burns. Although the new skin is not able to sweat or grow hair, it is a life-saving innovation.
Corneal Repair: the cornea is the surface of the eye, and if it becomes damaged or burned then vision is lost. Stem cell treatments have recently been developed to help the surface of the eye repair itself.
Bone Marrow Transplants: blood stem cells are produced in bone marrow and can be harvested from the bones of the patient or of a compatible donor to treat diseases like leukemia, lymphoma and certain blood disorders.
There are many studies underway by regenerative medicine scientists who hope to develop ways to use stem cell therapies to treat degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and even to combat the worst of the ravages of old age. The cure to these and other diseases may finally be on the horizon, improving the long-term health in all of humanity.