Dissecting Adult Stem Cell Research
In order to fully understand the field of adult stem cell research, it’s first essential to understand exactly what a stem cell is. Many people have the misguided idea that stem cells exist only in fetuses. This is untrue. Stem cells exist in the human body throughout our lives.
In the most general terms, a stem cell is simply a cell with the potential to become something else. A fertilized egg, for example, has the potential to develop into an entire human body. This is part of the misconception, because many believe that as cells develop, they lose their ability to change, adapt and alter themselves. This is untrue. While some cells, such as those in the heart, appear to replicate and repair themselves under very specific conditions, there are cells elsewhere in the body which do this on a regular basis. Cells in the bone marrow, for example, are constantly changing and reproducing themselves in order to repair damage and keep the tissue healthy.
What scientists have discovered appears to indicate that this regenerative state is actually caused by a small presence of stem cells within these bodily systems. The brain and the muscles are other examples. If we strain or pull a muscle, it is believed that stem cells go to work, healing our bodies.
What are Adult Stem Cells
Up until 2006, stem cell research was a very controversial topic. Scientists used embryonic stem cells from blastocysts, or human embryos between three and five days old. Since using these cells destroyed the embryo, the research was looked at in a very dim light by many.
However, in 2006 a revolution in the field of research was made. Scientists discovered a way to essentially “rewire” adult stem cells, causing them to turn into pluripotent cells once again. Pluripotent simply means having many potentialities. This discovery allowed scientists to perform experiments without using human embryos. Since then, research has made several astounding leaps forward.
Any stem cell, embryonic or adult, has three distinctive characteristics which make it a stem cell. These characteristics, when put together, are not found in any other type of cell in humans or in animals. Stem cells can renew themselves through division for long periods of time. In a lab setting, this can be up to a year; in the human body, it is most likely much longer. Stem cells are also unspecialized. This means that they essentially don’t do anything. They can’t transport oxygen to our tissues, carry messages through the body, or help us flex a muscle. However (the third characteristic) stem cells can create specialized cells. These cells which do “nothing” on their own can, under the right circumstances, replicate themselves into specialized cells which can carry messages, move muscles, transport oxygen and much, much more.
It is currently thought that stem cells live in many areas of the body, lying dormant and unused until a need arises. When a disease, injury or other cause brings about the need for new cells, the stem cells go to work generating the needed cells.
Scientists are currently working on ways to generate larger numbers of adult stem cells outside the human body. While stem cells can generate new cells, they currently appear to have trouble generating themselves. This means that if a small amount of stem cells are harvested from an adult body, that small amount is all a scientist has to work with. Research and testing is currently underway to find methods of replicating these cells so that larger-scale research can take place.
How Can Adult Stem Cells be Used?
The potential uses for adult stem cells are easily the most exciting potentialities of adult stem cell research. Since adult stem cells have the potential to turn into many different kinds of cells, scientists see great potential for degenerative diseases. These include heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes.
An easy way to visualize the potential of adult stem cells is to picture a damaged heart. The muscle is weakened. This can happen through a lifetime of poor habits such as overeating and smoking, or it can simply be a birth defect.
Adult stem cells could, in theory, be injected into the degenerated heart muscle. Scientists believe that these cells would “sense” where they are, recognize the need for new specific heart muscle cells, and set about generating those very cells. The result, it is hoped, would be a strengthened, healthier heart muscle.
When looking at degenerative brain diseases, the effects are even more exciting. Vast numbers of older adults suffer with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, two conditions which affect the brain. If new brain cells could be grown, a truly effective treatment, or even a cure, for these formerly “incurable” diseases could very well be on the horizon.
Organ transplant is another highly exciting field of adult stem cell research. If adult stem cells can literally grow new cells, scientists believe that, with further study, they may someday be able to grow entire organs by combining the correct stem cells and stimulating them in the correct ways. Given the large number of people on organ-transplant waiting lists who die while waiting for a new liver, pancreas or heart, the implications of growing new organs are truly revolutionary.
As you can see, adult stem cell research is leading the way in the future of medicine and how we are currently and in the future, healing many different areas of disease and sickness.