To list the ways in which stem cells are important is a broad task because stem cells use is virtually limitless. Stem cells have the potential to treat an enormous range of diseases and conditions that plague millions of people around the world. Their ability to treat so many diseases rests on their unique properties of:
- Self-renewal: stem cells can renew themselves almost indefinitely. This is also known as proliferation.
- Differentiation: stem cells have the special ability to differentiate into cells with specialised characteristics and functions.
- Unspecialised: stem cells themselves are largely unspecialised cells which then give rise to specialised cells.
One reason that stem cells are important is due to human development from stem cells. As such, an understanding of their unique attributes and control can teach us more about early human development. Diseases such as cancer are thought to result from abnormal cell proliferation and differentiation. This means that an understanding of where things go ‘wrong’ in stem cell division and thus lead to cancer can help us find ways to prevent the dysfunctional changes or employ effective ways to treat them with targeted drugs.
Stem cell research has the potential to teach us more about how birth defects occur and how these can be prevented or possibly reversed. An understanding of the regulation and chemical triggers of stem cell proliferation and differentiation are key to addressing birth defects.
Probably the most important therapeutic value for stem cells is the use of cell therapies. A cell therapy is a treatment that replaces dysfunctional or diseased tissues with stem cells.
At present, stem cells are already used in cell therapies for treatment of some cancer types but this use is still small in the scheme of diseases affecting humans today.
We are also using organ transplants but unfortunately, the number of organs available for transplant is scarce in comparison with those requiring an organ transplant. Many people suffer endlessly awaiting a transplant and others will die before they are able to receive one. The potential for stem cells to replace damaged cells and tissues is an exciting one for those who will require a transplant during their lifetime. Diseases that it is expected stem cells will treat one day include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as well as those diseases affecting the retina and heart.
Clearly, stem cell use is exciting and holds great promise for treating and perhaps one day curing many diseases. Their importance ranges from an understanding of the principles behind human development to the cell based therapies addressing those aspects that go awry during development and lead to disease.
For those who are already suffering from a disease that stem cells can treat, such as certain cancer types, stem cells may currently have more personal importance and relevance. For others, it is likely that at some point in their life, they or a loved one will be affected by a disease that stem cells can treat, so it’s good to keep abreast of stem cell research. The well-being and health of those you love is important and equally important are the stem cells that may one day prolong and improve your own life.
Find out More about Diseases and Stem Cells
To find out more about how stem cell research is helping to create medicines to fight disease, read our feature about major diseases and stem cells.