What are stem cells?

Youve probably heard about stem cells in the media and perhaps youve wondered if they might help you or a loved one with a serious disease. You may wonder what stem cells are, how theyre being used to treat disease and injury, and why theyre the subject of such vigorous debate.

Stem cells are the bodys raw materials — cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated.

Researchers and doctors hope stem cell studies can help to:

(1) Increase understanding of how diseases occur. By watching stem cells mature into cells in bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs and tissue, researchers and doctors may better understand how diseases and conditions develop.

(2) Generate healthy cells to replace diseased cells (regenerative medicine). Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people. People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinsons disease, Alzheimers disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis.

(3) Test new drugs for safety and effectiveness. Before using new drugs in people, some types of stem cells are useful to test the safety and quality of investigational drugs. This type of testing will most likely first have a direct impact on drug development for cardiac toxicity testing.

Stem cells can typically be broken into four types:

(1) Embryonic stem cells - Stem cells taken from human embryos
(2) Fetal stem cells- Stem cells taken from aborted fetal tissue
(3) Umbilical stem cells - Stem cells take from umbilical cords
(4) Adult stem cells - Stem cells taken from adult tissue

What is stem cell therapy (regenerative medicine), and how does it work?

Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, promotes the reparative response of diseased, dysfunctional or injured tissue using stem cells or their derivatives. It is the next chapter of organ transplantation and uses cells instead of donor organs, which are limited in supply.
Researchers grow stem cells in a lab. These stem cells are manipulated to specialize into specific types of cells, such as heart muscle cells, blood cells or nerve cells.

The specialized cells can then be implanted into a person. For example, if the person has heart disease, the cells could be injected into the heart muscle. The healthy transplanted heart cells could then contribute to repairing defective heart muscle.

Researchers have already shown that adult bone marrow cells guided to become heart-like cells can repair heart tissue in people, and more research is ongoing....