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Center for Regenerative Medicine - Dr. Jeanne F. Loring

Stem Cell Basics

Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions.

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Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are a type of pluripotent stem cell, meaning they are capable of giving rise to all of the various cell types of the body, derived from early-stage human embryos, up to and including the blastocyst stage. hESCs are capable of dividing without differentiating for a prolonged period in culture and are known to develop into cells and tissues of the three primary germ layers. Another source of pluripotent stem cells comes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs are adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell–like state by being forced to express genes and factors important for maintaining the defining properties of embryonic stem cells. Although these cells meet the defining criteria for pluripotent stem cells, it is not known if iPSCs and embryonic stem cells differ in clinically significant ways.  

There are many ways in which human stem cells can be used in research and the clinic. Studies of hESCs will yield information about the complex events that occur during human development. A primary goal of this work is to identify how undifferentiated stem cells become the differentiated cells that form the tissues and organs. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is central to this process. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A more complete understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy. Predictably controlling cell proliferation and differentiation requires additional basic research on the molecular and genetic signals that regulate cell division and specialization.

Human stem cells could also be used to test new drugs. For example, new medications could be tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human pluripotent cell lines. Other kinds of cell lines are already used in this way. Cancer cell lines, for example, are used to screen potential anti-tumor drugs. The availability of pluripotent stem cells would allow drug testing in a wider range of cell types.

The above information was adapted from: https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics.htm

 

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