Stem cells: What they are and what they do
Researchers believe stem cells offer great promise for new medical treatments. Learn about stem cell types, current and possible uses, ethical issues and the state of research.By Mayo Clinic staff
You've heard about stem cells in the news, and perhaps you've wondered if they might help you or a loved one with a serious disease. You may wonder what stem cells are, how they're being used to treat disease and injury, and why they're the subject of such vigorous debate.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about stem cells.
Why is there such an interest in stem cells?
Researchers hope stem cell studies can help to:
- Increase understanding of how diseases occur. By watching stem cells mature into cells that eventually become bones, heart muscle, nerve cells, and other organs and tissue, researchers and doctors may better understand how a variety of diseases and conditions develop.
- Generate healthy cells to replace diseased cells (regenerative medicine). Researchers hope they can train stem cells into becoming specific cells so that those specialized cells 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, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis. Stem cells could also be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant medicine.
- Test new drugs for safety and effectiveness. Before using new drugs in people, researchers could use stem cells to test the safety and quality of investigational drugs. For instance, nerve cells could be generated in order to test a new drug for a nerve disease. Tests could show whether the new drug had any effect on the cells and whether the cells were harmed.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are the body's raw materials — cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells, called daughter cells. These daughter cells either become new stem cells (self-renewal) or become specialized cells (differentiation) with a more specific function, such as blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle or bone. Stem cells are unique — no other cell in the body has the natural ability to generate new cell types.
Where do stem cells come from?
Researchers have discovered several sources of stem cells:
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