Restoring sight to the blind. Cloning. Even curing Parkinson’s. It sounds like something out of a freakish science fiction novel, but fortunately this ‘dream’ is far closer to reality than it may seem.
Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells; however, they show the unique property of being able to differentiate into specialised cell types. There are two types of stem cells; namely embryonic and adult, or somatic, stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are formed during embryological development, and are derived from a 4 to 5 day old human embryo that has been donated to research with informed consent of the donors. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are undifferentiated cells that are found amongst differentiated cells in a tissue or an organ.
Now, on to the interesting bit. You might be wondering, “What makes a stem cell so fascinating, isn’t it the same as every other cell?” Well, I’ll answer just that. Stem cells, as prompted by the title, are believed by many to be the future of medicine. Roger Pedersen, a professor of Regenerative Medicine at Cambridge, stem cells might even be able to replace drugs.
Stem cells differ from all other cells in primarily three ways. First, they are capable of repeated division and renewal, or proliferating, for long periods of time. This means that, over a period of time and if kept in adequate conditions, stem cells can replicate themselves and form millions of cells. Second, stem cells are unspecialised cells. They do not have any tissue-specific functions that make them specialised. However, and this is the third property that distinguishes stem cells from all other types of cells, they can differentiate into specialised cells with assigned tasks, such as blood cells, skin cells, or nerve cells.
What does this mean? The discovery and continuous research of stem cells has yielded much excitement among the scientific community. As mentioned above, many believe that increased knowledge about stem cells and how they function can lead to curing many diseases and conditions that modern medicine currently cannot cure. These range from curing paralysis to mending a broken heart, literally.
The concept of stem cells put simply is this. A stem cell, once differentiated into a specialised cell, cannot change back or proliferate any longer. Once it has differentiated it becomes that type of specialised cell. However, theoretically stem cells could be used by artificially differentiating them into a desired type of cell, and inserting many of these new healthy cells among the diseased cells so they can fight the illness. For example, a person suffering a chronic heart disease could have heart muscle cells grown in a lab and transplanted into his heart, potentially saving him from his disease. The same concept could be used to replace the cells in a blind man’s eye, or in a paralysed man’s spine.
However, even after decades of research, humans are still only scraping the surface of stem cells, and new possibilities and information arises day by day. So, what do you think? Within a few years will humans be living to the age of 150, or are the wonders of stem cells merely a myth?