What are Stem Cells Used For?


Authored by Geoff Vaughan in Medicine 
Published on 11-09-2009

Stem cells are a unique group of human cells which can transform into other types of cells. These cells consist of four different types: Embryonic, Umbilical, Fetal, and Adult stem cells. Although stem cells are usually found in brain tissue and bone marrow, new studies show that stem cells can also be found in a variety of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, Diabetes, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Wherever new cell growth is needed, stem cells can be preprogrammed and put in the body to grow new tissue. This is known as cell-based therapy. In addition to this therapy, stem cells are used for other purposes as well.

Stem cells are most often used for research; most of the studies involve trying to determine new uses for these cells and cures for diseases. Studying these cells, human embryonic stem cells in particular, will enable scientists and medical doctors to discover how humans develop, and is important in discovering ways to cure birth defects and cancer. Often, these diseases are caused when cells abnormally differentiate and divide, so discovering the molecular and genetic processes of stem cells may lead to the prevention and/or new ways to treat these problems. For example, cardiovascular disease is usually the number one killer of people in the United States, and patients with chronic heart problems are hoping that adult stem cells will soon be able to repair heart muscles. Using stem cells to repair the heart is yet another one of the many uses for embryonic and adult stem cells being researched today.

Another way in which stem cells are used for research is in testing out new drugs. Most of the current studies on new drugs are used on animals, but using stem cells may eliminate the use of animal experimentation. Researchers must carefully control stem cell differentiation in order to accurately test the drugs on very specific types of cells. This research could help scientists find drugs faster or uncover safety problems earlier in research because some drugs that are okay on animals still have problems when used on humans. Much research is still needed in this area to effectively and efficiently test out drugs on stem cells.

Although stem cells are primarily used in research, they have also been used in bone marrow transplants. These stem cells grow and create specialized cells needed in the body to treat diseases in humans, and in this case, bone marrow stem cells will eventually grow and develop to become blood cells. These cells help with diseases such as Aplastic anemia, a condition where bone marrow no longer makes enough red and white blood cells and platelets, and in Leukemia, a cancer involving white blood cells. Stem cells can also be harvested to treat lymphoma and blood disorders. Bone marrow transplants fall into two different categories: autologous, where the actual person is the donor for himself; and allogenic, where a different donor with similar genetic makeup in his or her tissue to the person who needs the transplant. In the latter case, it is usually better to use a family member with similar eye and hair color, as the closer the two people are in traits, the more likely the two will match in tissue.

Most of the stem cell research is still in the beginning stages, and more research is needed to be able to successfully use stem cells to treat more diseases and test out new drugs. Nonetheless, stem cells have the potential to save countless lives.


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