Stem Cells

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Stem cell facts

  • Stem cells are primitive cells that have the potential to differentiate, or develop into, a variety of specific cell types.
  • There are different types of stem cells based upon their origin and ability to differentiate.
  • Bone marrow transplantation is an example of a stem cell therapy that is in widespread use.
  • Research is underway to determine whether stem cell therapy may be useful in treating a wide variety of conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injury.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are cells that have the potential to develop into many different or specialized cell types. Stem cells can be thought of as primitive, "unspecialized" cells that are able to divide and become specialized cells of the body such as liver cells, muscle cells, blood cells, and other cells with specific functions. Stem cells are referred to as "undifferentiated" cells because they have not yet committed to a developmental path that will form a specific tissue or organ. The process of changing into a specific cell type is known as differentiation. In some areas of the body, stem cells divide regularly to renew and repair the existing tissue. The bone marrow and gastrointestinal tract are examples of areas in which stem cells function to renew and repair tissue.

The best and most readily understood example of a stem cell in humans is that of the fertilized egg, or zygote. A zygote is a single cell that is formed by the union of a sperm and ovum. The sperm and the ovum each carry half of the genetic material required to form a new individual. Once that single cell or zygote starts dividing, it is known as an embryo. One cell becomes two, two become four, four become eight, eight become sixteen, and so on, doubling rapidly until it ultimately grows into an entire sophisticated organism composed of many different kinds of specialized cells. That organism, a person, is an immensely complicated structure consisting of many, many, billions of cells with functions as diverse as those of your eyes, your heart, your immune system, the color of your skin, your brain, etc. All of the specialized cells that make up these body systems are descendants of the original zygote, a stem cell with the potential to ultimately develop into all kinds of body cells. The cells of a zygote are totipotent, meaning that they have the capacity to develop into any type of cell in the body.

The process by which stem cells commit to become differentiated, or specialized, cells is complex and involves the regulation of gene expression. Research is ongoing to further understand the molecular events and controls necessary for stem cells to become specialized cell types.

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Stem Cell Definition

Stem Cells: One of the human body's master cells, with the ability to grow into any one of the body's more than 200 cell types.

All stem cells are unspecialized (undifferentiated) cells that are characteristically of the same family type (lineage). They retain the ability to divide throughout life and give rise to cells that can become highly specialized and take the place of cells that die or are lost.

Stem cells contribute to the body's ability to renew and repair its tissues. Unlike mature cells, which are permanently committed to their fate, stem cells can both renew themselves as well as create new cells of whatever tissue they belong to (and other tissues).

Why are stem cells important?

Stem cells represent an exciting area in medicine because of their potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue. Some current therapies, such as bone marrow transplantation, already make use of stem cells and their potential for regeneration of damaged tissues. Other therapies that are under investigation involve transplanting stem cells into a damaged body part and directing them to grow and differentiate into healthy tissue.

Embryonic stem cells

During the early stages of embryonic development the cells remain relatively undifferentiated (immature) and appear to possess the ability to become, or differentiate, into almost any tissue within the body. For example, cells taken from one section of an embryo that might have become part of the eye can be transferred into another section of the embryo and could develop into blood, muscle, nerve, or liver cells.

Cells in the early embryonic stage are totipotent (see above) and can differentiate to become any type of body cell. After about seven days, the zygote forms a structure known as a blastocyst, which contains a mass of cells that eventually become the fetus, as well as trophoblastic tissue that eventually becomes the placenta. If cells are taken from the blastocyst at this stage, they are known as pluripotent, meaning that they have the capacity to become many different types of human cells. Cells at this stage are often referred to as blastocyst embryonic stem cells. When any type of embryonic stem cells is grown in culture in the laboratory, they can divide and grow indefinitely. These cells are then known as embryonic stem cell lines.

Picture of the stem cell cycle
Picture of the stem cell cycle

Fetal stem cells

The embryo is referred to as a fetus after the eighth week of development. The fetus contains stem cells that are pluripotent and eventually develop into the different body tissues in the fetus.

Adult stem cells

Adult stem cells are present in all humans in small numbers. The adult stem cell is one of the class of cells that we have been able to manipulate quite effectively in the bone marrow transplant arena over the past 30 years. These are stem cells that are largely tissue-specific in their location. Rather than typically giving rise to all of the cells of the body, these cells are capable of giving rise only to a few types of cells that develop into a specific tissue or organ. They are therefore known as multipotent stem cells. Adult stem cells are sometimes referred to as somatic stem cells.

The best characterized example of an adult stem cell is the blood stem cell (the hematopoietic stem cell). When we refer to a bone marrow transplant, a stem cell transplant, or a blood transplant, the cell being transplanted is the hematopoietic stem cell, or blood stem cell. This cell is a very rare cell that is found primarily within the bone marrow of the adult.

One of the exciting discoveries of the last years has been the overturning of a long-held scientific belief that an adult stem cell was a completely committed stem cell. It was previously believed that a hematopoietic, or blood-forming stem cell, could only create other blood cells and could never become another type of stem cell. There is now evidence that some of these apparently committed adult stem cells are able to change direction to become a stem cell in a different organ. For example, there are some models of bone marrow transplantation in rats with damaged livers in which the liver partially re-grows with cells that are derived from transplanted bone marrow. Similar studies can be done showing that many different cell types can be derived from each other. It appears that heart cells can be grown from bone marrow stem cells, that bone marrow cells can be grown from stem cells derived from muscle, and that brain stem cells can turn into many types of cells.

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Peripheral blood stem cells

Most blood stem cells are present in the bone marrow, but a few are present in the bloodstream. This means that these so-called peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) can be isolated from a drawn blood sample. The blood stem cell is capable of giving rise to a very large number of very different cells that make up the blood and immune system, including red blood cells, platelets, granulocytes, and lymphocytes.

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body and give the blood its color.
  • Platelets are cell fragments that stop a person from bleeding and help the body to clot and heal when it is cut.
  • Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that helps fight bacterial infection.
  • Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that is part of the immune system, help fight other infections, and also may be involved in protection against cancer.

All of these very different cells with very different functions are derived from a common, ancestral, committed blood-forming (hematopoietic), stem cell.

Umbilical cord stem cells

Blood from the umbilical cord contains some stem cells that are genetically identical to the newborn. Like adult stem cells, these are multipotent stem cells that are able to differentiate into certain, but not all, cell types. For this reason, umbilical cord blood is often banked, or stored, for possible future use should the individual require stem cell therapy.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were first created from human cells in 2007. These are adult cells that have been genetically converted to an embryonic stem cell–like state. In animal studies, iPSCs have been shown to possess characteristics of pluripotent stem cells. Human iPSCs can differentiate and become multiple different fetal cell types. iPSCs are valuable aids in the study of disease development and drug treatment, and they may have future uses in transplantation medicine. Further research is needed regarding the development and use of these cells.

Why is there controversy surrounding the use of stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells and embryonic stem cell lines have received much public attention concerning the ethics of their use or non-use. Clearly, there is hope that a large number of treatment advances could occur as a result of growing and differentiating these embryonic stem cells in the laboratory. It is equally clear that each embryonic stem cell line has been derived from a human embryo created through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) or through cloning technologies, with all the attendant ethical, religious, and philosophical problems, depending upon one's perspective.

What are some stem cell therapies that are currently available?

Routine use of stem cells in therapy has been limited to blood-forming stem cells (hematopoietic stem cells) derived from bone marrow, peripheral blood, or umbilical cord blood. Bone marrow transplantation is the most familiar form of stem cell therapy and the only instance of stem cell therapy in common use. It is used to treat cancers of the blood cells (leukemias) and other disorders of the blood and bone marrow.

In bone marrow transplantation, the patient's existing white blood cells and bone marrow are destroyed using chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Then, a sample of bone marrow (containing stem cells) from a healthy, immunologically matched donor is injected into the patient. The transplanted stem cells populate the recipient's bone marrow and begin producing new, healthy blood cells.

Umbilical cord blood stem cells and peripheral blood stem cells can also be used instead of bone marrow samples to repopulate the bone marrow in the process of bone marrow transplantation.

In 2009, the California-based company Geron received clearance from the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin the first human clinical trial of cells derived from human embryonic stem cells in the treatment of patients with acute spinal cord injury.

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What are experimental treatments using stem cells and possible future directions for stem cell therapy?

Stem cell therapy is an exciting and active field of biomedical research. Scientists and physicians are investigating the use of stem cells in therapies to treat a wide variety of diseases and injuries. For a stem cell therapy to be successful, a number of factors must be considered. The appropriate type of stem cell must be chosen, and the stem cells must be matched to the recipient so that they are not destroyed by the recipient's immune system. It is also critical to develop a system for effective delivery of the stem cells to the desired location in the body. Finally, devising methods to "switch on" and control the differentiation of stem cells and ensure that they develop into the desired tissue type is critical for the success of any stem cell therapy.

Researchers are currently examining the use of stem cells to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue in many conditions, including those listed below.

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

REFERENCE:

"Stem Cell Information." National Institutes of Health.

Last Editorial Review: 9/8/2016

Reviewed on 9/8/2016
References
Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

REFERENCE:

"Stem Cell Information." National Institutes of Health.

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