What Are Stem Cells And What Are They Used For

Stem cells are the body’s natural “reserve store” with which it replaces specialized cells that have been used up or damaged. We all carry stem cells within us. Even in this second, the stem cells in your bone marrow are producing the 100,000 million new blood cells your body needs every day!

For the body to function, it must constantly produce new cells. Some specialized cells such as blood cells and muscle cells are not able to produce daughter cells by cell division. The body therefore uses stem cells to renew them.

Stem cells have the unique ability to produce both copies of themselves (self-renewal) and other more specialized cell types (differentiation) at each division. Stem cells are therefore essential for the preservation of organs and tissues such as blood, skin and intestines, which are constantly renewed (cell replacement), as well as muscles. Muscles are often damaged during physical exertion and have to be built up according to the requirements of the body.

Where Do Stem Cells Come From

Stem cells are not only found in embryos in early stages of development. In fact, stem cells are found in the human body for a lifetime. Stem cells can be divided into three categories:

Embryonic stem cells: They are cultivated in the laboratory from cells derived from embryos in early stages of development.
Induced pluripotent or reprogrammed stem cells: Similar to embryonic stem cells, they are produced from adult (mature) specialised cells using a laboratory process developed in 2006.
Tissue stem cells: They are found throughout a person’s life.
Detailed information on the properties of the different stem cell types and on current research can be found in our other information sheets.

In this information sheet we give a brief overview of the different stem cell types. The progress made with the different cell types is compared and the challenges and limitations one faces are recorded.

What Are Stem Cells Useful For

Stem cells are of great benefit for research into diseases and have great potential for clinical use.

Some sources of adult stem cells are already being used therapeutically, albeit with limitations. Initial clinical studies on cells produced from embryonic stem cells have just been completed. . However, further studies are needed before these cells can be used as therapy in a large number of patients.

At the same time, already induced pluripotent stem cells are of great benefit in research. However, they need to be researched in more detail before clinical application can be considered.

This is also evident in clinical studies using ES cells or iPS cells. ES cells will be used in several clinical studies to treat diseases, while iPS cells have been used in only one study to treat age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which has currently been discontinued. All other clinical trials involve the derivation of iPS cells from patient cells rather than a model system for the disease, drug testing, or a basic understanding of the biology of this cell type.

Another current area of research is transdifferentiation. This involves the direct conversion of one type of specialized cell into another.

All these different research approaches are important for developing therapies for numerous serious diseases with the help of stem cell research.