Did you know there are a number of practical applications of stem cells for healthcare?
The term “stem cell” is so controversial that many people forget to learn what stem cells are. Most people know about Dolly the cloned sheep, but they don’t know much else.
You don’t have to be a biologist to understand how important and innovative stem cells and stem cell treatments are. Let’s go over some types of stem cells and how they can be used to better our health.
What Are Stem Cells?
Having a basic understanding of what we mean by stem cells is important for understanding the different types.
Our entire body is made up of building blocks called cells. These cells are different based on type and location in the body.
For example, your skin cells are designed to work as a skin cell and can only replicate to become a skin cell. A muscle cell, on the other hand, performs muscle functions and can only replicate to become muscle cells.
But stem cells are different: they have the ability to become and to function as many different types of cells. Essentially, stem cells are defined by being undefined.
Types of Stem Cells
The above definition is true for all stem cells. However, there are key differences between different types of stem cells found in the body.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are the most relevant for regenerative therapy and stem cell research. They also happen to be the most controversial.
As the name suggests, these stem cells are found in embryos. They will create all of the cells in a functioning embryo, eventually forming an entire working body.
These cells can become any and all cell types found in the body.
Since these cells can become any cell type, embryonic stem cells are a hot topic for research. People hope to one day use these cells to create full organs for transplant and other cutting-edge healthcare applications.
These are the most controversial type of stem cell to use for healthcare which is why there is currently limited applications for the use in humans.
Somatic Stem Cells
The most common type of stem cell used in stem cell therapy and treatments are somatic stem cells. These stem cells are also called “tissue-specific” and “adult” stem cells. Doctors use these in over 75% of stem cell therapy.
While these types of stem cells can form various cell types, they aren’t able to become any cell as embryonic stem cells can. Typically, somatic stem cells will only be able to specialize into a more specific cell type for the area, tissue, or organ they’re localized in.
Let’s look at blood stem cells as an example. These stem cells can form different types of blood cells. White blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells are some examples. But, they aren’t able to become a skin cell. However, these stem cells are important in current everyday treatment for many blood cancer related diseases. By providing a stem cell transplant, often various forms of leukemia can be cured.
These are harder to harvest compared to embryonic stem cells, and they don’t culture as easily in the lab. Doctors use these types of stem cells to heal injuries, speed up recovery, and treat blood disorders.
Cord-Blood Stem Cells
Cord blood stem cells come from where you’d think with a name like that: the umbilical cord. These are an example of somatic stem cells. This is because stem cells in cord blood are blood stem cells.
However, cord blood stem cells are much easier to harvest and store for use compared to regular somatic stem cells. They’re located in huge concentrations in the umbilical cord, and doctors can easily get the blood from the cord after birth.
These cells are used to treat leukemia, immune disorders, and other illnesses involving blood and the immune system. There’s also evidence to suggest that using cord blood leads to fewer complications than other types of stem cells. In order to get these cells, a special kit is used during the time of birth. There are many commercial companies that will then store that blood for future use. This is only an option if saved during the time of birth.
Human Designed Stem Cells
Human-designed stem cells, called iPS, are a product of engineering and human design. Scientists have discovered a way to take any cell and turn them into stem cells.
This is a huge innovation. Instead of harvesting from embryos, finding somatic stem cells, or harvesting from cord blood, we can take any type of cell and make it into the stem cell we want.
This is still a new technology and is far from fool-proof. But the potential to cure disease, treat illness, and change medicine is exciting (and not far off!).
Stem Cells and Pain Management
Chronic pain sufferers often have issues with inflammation, damaged tendons, and other particular injuries. And traditional forms of treatment aren’t always effective. Many people suffering from chronic pain or injuries have to try multiple treatment methods to get relief.
That’s where stem cells come in.
Stem cell therapy is a new technique that uses stem cells to heal areas of pain. Stem cells are injected into the area of pain or injury with the hope it will result in healing of damaged structures resulting in pain relief. This is an emerging area of research and clinical practice and not all injuries and problems are amenable to stem cell therapy however there is a lot of potential for future applications
Stem Cells: A Quick Guide
Types of stem cells and their applications might seem like they’re only to be understood by scientists, but they’re simple when you break it down. They’re cells that can become other types of cells.
That might not seem very exciting. But the range of healthcare applications, pain management, and scientific research is exciting.