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What Are Stem Cells?

written by: Elizabeth Engel•edited by: Diana Cooper•updated: 5/18/2011

With an overwhelming amount of information related to health available to you, read this article for a summarized overview of important information relating to stem cells.

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    Stem cells are a fascinating anomaly to the body. They have the unique ability to transform themselves into other cells when the body needs them. They act as a means of repair to our internal system to help it function at a desirable pace. Stem cells can remain stem cells or transform themselves into other important functioning cells such as a red blood cell or muscle cell. When the tissue in our bodies become damaged or worn out, stem cells can help aid in their repair by dividing into the necessary cells needed to support and maintain healthy functioning tissue.

     

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    What Kind Are There?

    The 3 Main Stem Cell Classifications:

    Totipotent: A totipotent cell has the capacity to form an entire organism. Totipotent cells have total potential. They specialize into pluripotent cells that can give rise to most, but not all, of the tissues necessary for fetal development.

    Multipotent: Having the ability to differentiate to a limited number of cell fates or into closely related family of cells.

    Pluripotent: Capable of differentiating into one of many cell types.

     

    The 3 Main Stem Cell Types:

    Embryonic Stem Cells: Cells derived from early embryos that can replicate indefinitely and differentiate into many cell types. Stem cells serve as a continuous source of new cells; they may become incorporated into many tissues to produce chimeric animals when introduced into early embryos, ie, blastocysts.

    Adult Stem Cells: Stem cells sourced from adult donors.

    Umbilical Cord Stem Cells: A mixed population of stem cells found in the blood of the neonatal umbilical cord and placenta. This population includes multipotent embryonic-like stem cells, a population of hematopoetic stem cells, and a variety of stem cells capable of differentiating into virtually all adult human tissues.

     

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    What Are the Possible Treatments and Cures?

    Numerous research is being done to study the possible health benefits and cures associated with stem cell treatments. But first you may ask, "What is a stem cell transplant?"

    A stem cell transplant is a procedure in which healthy stem cells are infused into your body, necessary because of the lack of effort made by bone marrow to produce healthy stem cells.

    Stem cells that are currently being used for treatments now are associated with cancer. Bone marrow and umbilical cord blood stem cells are used to help patients dealing with leukemia and lymphoma. When cancer patients undergo chemotherapy, many cells become damaged in the process. By getting stem cell treatments, patients are able to use those new healthy stem cells to replenish the ones that have been destroyed.

    Potential treatments in the future could also help and more rapidly treat or cure problems associated with diabetes, other cancers, deafness, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, and many others.

     

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    Potential Uses

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    Where Are the Biggest Opportunities in Research?

    Stem cells have the potential to revolutionize medicine and change the health care industry. The potential for cures could be endless if stem cells could be cultivated in ways to efficiently and effectively produce the results needed to repair and fix damaged organs of all kinds. However, it is important to state that stem cell research has been deemed highly controversial, due to the ethical issues surrounding taking stem cells from human embryos.

    Research will continue to take place to discover the wonderful new healing qualities stem cells may produce in the future.

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