Over the past 70 years, scientists have both discovered and learned to use stem cells in a variety of ways. Indeed, with rigorous research and clinical testing proving the power these cells possess, science has been able to better understand not only human development, but regenerative medicine and the treatment of disease, giving us some of the most innovative and life-saving therapies available today.
But First, What are Stem Cells?
Known as the building blocks of life, stem cells are cells that give rise to the body’s different cell types. They can be found in embryonic and adult tissues, and since their “discovery” in the 1960s by Ernest McCulloch and James Till, they have been studied for their unique ability to self-renew and differentiate into other cell types.
Three Ways to Use Stem Cells
Early stem cell research (as evidenced by McCulloch and Till’s work) was focused on adult stem cells found in bone marrow and how they could be used to replace blood cells damaged by cancer and other diseases. Later, research expanded to include the more “powerful” embryonic stem cells, eventually leading to the 2006 discovery of a way to turn adult cells into stem cells with embryonic stem cell properties. Here are some of the most important ways stem cells are being used today:
- Transplants – Because stem cells have the ability to transform into many types of cells, they have the ability to replace damaged tissue. Some of the earliest stem cell treatments were bone marrow transplants. In this type of procedure, hematopoietic stem cells are harvested from healthy bone marrow and/or blood and then transferred to a patient with unhealthy hematopoietic stem cells (whether a result of leukemia, multiple myeloma or another blood disease). As the new stem cells begin to multiply, new, healthy blood cells are formed. Bone marrow transplants, now called stem cell transplants, are still one of the leading uses of adult stem cells, and have led to alternative cell therapies such as regenerative therapy for disc cartilage and even erectile dysfunction!
- Research – Another important use of stem cells is for research purposes. While controversial for some, embryonic stem cell research, in particular, holds exciting promise for modern medicine. If scientists can study these types of stem cells and learn how they differentiate into certain types of cells, they can potentially stop some diseases from occurring, develop or “grow” replacement tissues and organs and develop cell-based therapies to alter genetic problems and repair injury and disease.
- Testing – Stem cells can also be used to test new drugs. Rather than use animals to test the toxicity and efficacy of new drugs, scientists can expose embryonic stem cells to new chemical compounds to see how they react. This often shortens drug development time and lowers the cost (since no live animals are needed), as well as provides more reliable results and, thus, less harm to the people entering the drug’s human trials (since the effects of the drug have already been investigated with human — not animal — cells).
Of course, these are just three of the ways stem cells are currently being used. As research advances, there’s sure to be many, many more!