Stem cells are cells that naturally occur in the body which have not taken on a specific function. Stem cells are considered pluripotent, meaning they can divide into more stem cells, or they can differentiate into any other cell type. These cells are extremely useful for the treatment of disease, as they can be used to replace damaged or dying cells in the body. The use of stem cells in medicine has been a controversial topic because of the source of available stem cells (i.e. embryonic stem cells). Luckily, recent scientific advances have allowed for the harvest of stem cells from an adult patient. For example, stem cells occur in the adipose (fat) tissue of humans and can be harvested from a patient and used to treat a disease in that same patient. Stem cells have the potential to treat a multitude of diseases. Here is a list of three ways that stem cell therapy can be used in disease treatment.
- Treat blood diseases. The most well established use of stem cells involves transplantation of bone marrow for the treatment blood and immune system diseases. The bone marrow contains hematopoietic stem cells, which differentiate into different types of blood cells. Bone marrow transplants are used to restore stem cells that have been destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation treatment in cancer patients. This type of stem cell treatment can also be imperative in cancer treatment because the white blood cells from the donor bone marrow can identify and attack the cancer cells in the patient’s body that remain after chemotherapy treatment.
- Understanding diseases. One primary example of how stem cells are used to understand disease is in the development and progression of heart disease Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump enough blood to the rest of the body to supply oxygen and nutrients to the organs. Heart failure usually occurs after damage to the heart such as a heart attack or can develop more slowly from underlying problems like high blood pressure. Stem cells have been instrumental in helping scientists understand cardiac biology and the development of heart failure. With the use of cardiac progenitor cells, which are immature cells obtained from the heart tissue, or induced pluripotent stem cells, cells from adult tissue that have been reprogrammed in the lab to behave like stem cells. Scientists have gained more understanding how cardiac cells communicate and function. Stem cells have great potential for the treatment of heart disease. For example, several groups are working to determine if stem cells can be transplanted into and injured heart to find if those stem cells will incorporate into the heart and help repair damage.
- Drug development. Stem cells have been used to model human diseases in the lab in order to understand the molecular basis behind disease development as well as drug testing in cultured cells. For example, scientists have been able to generate brain cells from pluripotent stem cells made from skin cells of patients with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Down’s syndrome. These induced brain cells were shown to display characteristics of the patients’ diseases. This system can improve understanding the development of these diseases and the cells can be treated with experimental drugs for drug development purposes.