In recent years, the phrase ‘stem cells’ has become a popular and widely published scientific topic. Debate and discussions about stem cells are everywhere, including magazines, television, radio and the Internet. Complicating the topic even more are the political and government policies around stem cell research. For many people in the general public, however, the topic is a confusing one and it can be difficult to understand and interpret information about stem cells. You may still be unsure just what stem cells are or what relevance they have to your daily life and well-being.
What is a Cell?
A cell is a very basic structural and functional unit of life. While bacteria are unicellular because they consist of only one cell, humans are considered multicellular in that they have literally trillions of cells. Your cells are responsible for everything that you do, whether that is taking in nutrients, providing energy for you to go about your day, or reproducing. Cells in your body have many different functions and they ‘stem’ from simpler cells that are not yet specialised. These simpler cells are known as stem cells. What this means is that a stem cell is basically a cell that does not yet have a specific job in the body. The word ‘simple’ is even a bit deceiving because it implies that these cells are not important, which is far from the case.
What Makes Stem Cells Special?
Stem cells have key features that separate them from other types of cells. They are:
- Unspecialised and renew themselves by dividing
- Able, under specific conditions, to become cells with specialised jobs (e.g. nerve cell)
When a stem cell divides, the new cell can become a different cell with a more specific function, such as a heart cell, or it can remain a stem cell. Stem cells are vital to humans for numerous reasons. In the primary stages of embryo development, a tiny cluster of approximately thirty cells eventually leads to hundreds of extremely specialised cells that are necessary for adult life. As the foetus develops, stem cells become the many specialised cells that constitute tissues such as heart and skin. In fact, groups of stem cells in some adult tissues also give rise to replacement cells that are destroyed through injury, disease or age.
What are we Learning About Stem Cells?
Current stem cell research is teaching us how humans develop from a single cell so we can better understand when things go wrong, leading to disease. Knowledge is also growing with regards to how healthy cells can replace diseased or otherwise damaged cells in the body. This will allow for medical therapies to create compatible cell lines to replace diseased cells in the body.
Why Should I Even Care About Stem Cells?
Stem cells have an enormous potential to benefit different areas of disease research and management. By learning more about stem cells, scientists and the public can understand how these multi-purpose cells can develop into the specific and specialised cells that make humans what they are today. By studying stem cells, we can learn about the actual process that occurs from a single stem cell to a huge array of specialised cells that let us live and function each day.
Countless devastating and serious diseases such as cancer are thought to occur at some point in the division process of a stem cell to a specialised cell. Through research and knowledge about the development of a normal stem cell, scientists can better learn how to correct the ‘mistakes’ that occur and lead to such diseases. With 1 in 3 people developing cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 4 dying from cancer, stem cells may have the ability to save a great many lives. When researchers are able to identify exactly why cells become cancerous and how, they can then find ways to prevent the change occurring in the first place as well as develop drugs to treat the disease.
Stem cells also have therapeutic potential for creating tissues. The waiting lists for organ donation are overwhelming and many people die whilst waiting for an organ transplant. Certain types of stem cells may also provide a source of cells to treat a broad range of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, burns, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Stem cells are clearly an intriguing and promising area of science but like many fields of interest, their use prompts questions and controversy. Stem cells are already being used today to treat medical conditions that you or a loved one may suffer from and with continued research; we can all learn more details about what stem cells are and how they can improve our lives.