Stem cell technology is a controversial but groundbreaking field of medicine. These remarkable cells are produced by our own bodies, and have properties that make them priceless in the field of healthcare innovations.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are undifferentiated “blank slate” cells that are considered the basic building blocks of our bodies. They have the potential to become any type of specialised cell, in any part of the body. They also have the ability to renew themselves and replace sick or damaged cells. This means they have incredible disease-fighting potential.
Types of Stem Cells and their Uses
Embryonic stem cells: Found in human embryos. These cells are extracted from embryos that may be discarded after successful in vitro fertilisation. They are very important because they are able to develop into any type of tissue in the body. However, the harvesting and use of these stem remains a controversial matter. Some people believe that life begins at conception, and that the embryo’s life shouldn’t be ended to benefit another. Embryonic stem cell technology is banned in some countries, and in others it is strictly controlled. In a promising development, scientists have discovered a new type of stem cell that exists in amniotic fluid, and this may provide an alternative to using embryonic cells.
Adult stem cells: Found in numerous organs and tissues. Most adult stem cells are more limited than their embryonic counterparts. They are only able to form new cells identical to the tissue in which they are found. They are still extremely useful however, as they repair and maintain these tissues and organs effectively.
Placental and umbilical cord stem cells: Found in the placenta. These cells are harvested from newborn babies, after the umbilical cord has been cut. They are considered to be the best possible form of “adult” stem cells, because they have not yet been exposed to any infections or become affected by immune reactions in the body. These cells are a 100% match for the child they are taken from, so they can be used in transplants for the child later in life, in case of any diseases or injuries. The cells also have a high possibility of being a transplant match for the child’s siblings and parents.
Haematopoetic stem cells (HSGs): Found in umbilical cord blood and human bone marrow. These stem cells are used to treat over 70 blood-related diseases, including leukaemia, blood cancers, lymphoma and sickle cell anaemia. They can also be provided to the patient through bone marrow transplants.
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs): Found in umbilical cord tissue and human fat cells. These cells can be artificially grown in a laboratory, which makes them a less controversial treatment. They can be used to restore burned and damaged skin, and repair nerve damage caused by strokes or Parkinson’s disease. MSCs are also used to regenerate heart muscle and repair cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments.
Storing Stem Cells
After harvesting, the cells are processed and stored in stem cell banks, according to international accreditation standards. Storage is carefully monitored, and stem cell banks comply with the Human Tissue Act. Many people choose to harvest and store their own stem cells, or their children’s stem cells, in case a medical need for them arises.
The field of stem cell research is still evolving, bringing with it a host of ethical dilemmas. The good news is that scientists are learning more every day, and are able to harness the power of these fascinating cells to the benefit of human health.
A quick guide to stem cells. Retrieved from: http://www.netcells.co.za/guide.php
Cryo-Save stem cell storage banks in South Africa. Retrieved from: http://www.cryo-save.co.za
Mandal, AM. Stem cell controversy. Retrieved from: http://www.news-medical.net/health/Stem-Cell-Controversy.aspx