What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cells are capable of building almost every tissue in our body. This is why scientists believe that these cells have the potential to be used for tissue repair, regeneration, and other therapeutic purposes.
Stem cells have two distinctive characteristics: their self-renewal capability and their ability to produce a specialized cell type that can become a part of an organ.
If you are wondering what stem cells are, how they are generated, and how they are helpful in treating various disease, here is a comprehensive guide that should be sufficient to answer almost any question about stem cell therapy.
What Are Stem Cells?
In simple terms, stem cells can be referred to as undifferentiated or blank cells. This suggests that these cells are capable of turning into different types of cells and can thus be transplanted in various parts of the body.
In fact, most of the cells located in our body are differentiated cells. A differentiated stem cell is capable of performing a specific function in an organ. For instance, the purpose of red blood cells is to carry oxygen from the lungs to different parts of the body.
The creation of a human being starts with just one cell, known as the zygote or fertilized egg. After that, the zygote starts to multiply. Eventually, a time comes when these cells start to differentiate, ready to take on their specific function that usually relates to the creation of a particular organ.
However, during the process of differentiation, some cells are not differentiated. These are stem cells, which have the tendency to divide and create exact copies. However, after division, a stem cell may either turn into a large number of stem cells or convert into differentiated cells. Scientists use this property of a stem cell to genetically create specific differentiated stem cells in a laboratory.
Stem cells can play a key role when it comes to regenerative medicine, which is a process that allows the body to heal itself. There are certain tissues where the stem cells can replace dead cells after their transplantation. By understanding the workings of stem cells, it is possible to treat certain disorders and ailments, like heart diseases and diabetes.
For example, if the heart of an individual contains defective tissue, doctors may stimulate the growth of healthy tissues by transplanting stem cells into the heart. Research in this field is still ongoing, though promising results have raised the hopes of scientists.
Different Kinds of Stem Cells
Depending on their purpose, stem cells have different types. A few are discussed below.
Cord blood stem cells and amniotic fluid stem cells
These stem cells come into existence after scientists harvest them from the umbilical cord once a child is born. After freezing these cells, scientists can use them in the future. Cord blood stem cells have been helpful in treating children with different types of blood cancers, like leukemia and various other genetic blood disorders.
Embryonic Stem Cells
As the name suggests, embryonic stem cells relate to human embryos, which are three to five days old. In order to harvest them, scientists use a process known as in-vitro fertilization. This means that the fertilization of an embryo takes place in the laboratory rather than the womb. Embryonic stem cells can virtually turn into any other kind of cell that is present in the body.
Non-embryonic (adult) Stem Cells
Non-embryonic, or adult stem cells, are present in children and infants. It is possible to derive these cells from developed tissues and organs of a body. The basic purpose of these cells is to replace and repair damaged tissues found in the different organs and areas of a human body.
For instance, hematopoietic stem cells are present in the bone marrow. Their function is to create new red blood cells and white blood cells. The bone marrow transplant is a method to transplant hematopoietic stem cells. This method is successful in treating various types of blood cancers.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs)
Recently, scientists have discovered a way to change adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells. The scientific name of these cells is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are special stem cells that can differentiate into specialized cells.
This suggests that these cells have the potential to produce new cells for any tissue or organ. Scientists genetically reprogram the adult stem cells with a view of making them identical to the embryonic stem cells.
This discovery is a breakthrough when it comes to de-differentiating the stem cells. By using this process, scientists can understand how a disease develops. Scientists believe that by utilizing this method, they will be able to treat a disease with the patient’s own skin. It will be also helpful in preventing the body’s immune system from rejecting the transplant of an organ.
How Stem Cell Therapy Works
Each individual is different depending on the body’s construction. Those who have no birth defects can live a healthy life. On the other hand, some people are born with neuromuscular disorders or develop degenerative disorders at a later stage of their lives.
Stem cell therapy (SCT) has proved to be effective while treating different types of disorders. Scientists use different ways to procure stem cells, which have the potential to treat over 80 different types of degenerative and neuromuscular disorders.
Leukemia, aplastic anemia, thalassemia, MDS, storage disorders, and sickle cell anemia are associated with hematopoietic disorders. These manifest with different systemic complications and affect the functionality of bone marrow. Cord blood or bone marrow stem cells can repair defective bone marrow and help treat the disorder.
Degenerative disorders relate to the degeneration of muscle, bone, cartilage, and tissues due to wear and tear. Apart from various other reasons, the basic cause of degeneration disorders is the natural process of aging. The impact of these disorders is relatively slow; however, once contracted, these issues may continue to cause pain or discomfort for the rest of one’s life.
These disorders can affect any organ of the body. The most widely seen degenerative disorders include osteoarthritis, stroke, chronic renal failure, diabetes, congestive cardiac failure, Parkinson’s disease, myocardial infarction, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Also referred to as regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy helps repair or replace dysfunctional, damaged, or injured tissues. Stem cells or their derivatives may prove helpful while creating specific tissues or even the organs in the future.
Research in the field of organ transplantation has proved to be successful in various aspects. Scientists have been successful in growing stem cells in a lab. After manipulating these cells, researchers can turn them into specific types, like nerve cells, heart muscle cells, or blood cells. In fact, it is now possible to transplant these specialized cells into a person.
Since adult bone marrow transplants have been successfully performed in the previous years, it gives hope that by creating heart cells from the stem cell technology, it is possible to repair or replace defective heart tissue.
Potential Applications of Stem Cell Therapy
The ability of stem cells to turn into numerous other types of cells is a ray of hope for the scientists. This creates the belief that these cells will help them understand and treat different types of diseases.
Stem cell therapy has been applied in various healthcare departments for over 55 years and has proven quite successful in treating various diseases, even achieving a few revolutionary milestones.
For instance, blood cancer treatment usually requires a high dose of chemotherapy, which destroys most of the stem cells present in the patient. However, stem cell therapy allows for the extraction of the patient’s stem cells from the bone marrow to store them temporarily. After chemotherapy, these cells are transplanted back into the patient’s blood to minimize the effects of such an aggressive procedure. It helps the regeneration of already destroyed cells.
This is just one application of stem cell therapy, as there are numerous other instances where this technology has performed miracles. Following are potential applications of stem cell therapy.
- To help drive new cells inside a laboratory, which are used to repair or replace the defective tissues.
- To treat the different parts of an organ that isn’t working appropriately.
- To understand the basic causes of genetic defects.
- To conduct research regarding the development of cancer cells and causes of such a disease.
- To continue testing the latest drugs in a safe and effective manner.
Although comprehensive research has been in progress for the past few decades, there is much more to discover when it comes to stem cells and their ability to treat various diseases. At present, successful stem cells transplantation has proved its efficacy while treating different disorders, including cancer and degenerative disorders. Scientists believe that the advancement in stem cell technology has the potential to create almost every type of new tissues and organs that are present in a human body.