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Stem Cell Research

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 as long as the person or animal is still alive. 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 unspecialized. One of the fundamental properties of a stem cell is that it does not have any tissue-specific structures that allow it to perform specialized functions. Stem cells are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods. Unlike muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells—which do not normally replicate themselves—stem cells may replicate many times, or proliferate. A starting population of stem cells that proliferates for many months in the laboratory can yield millions of cells. If the resulting cells continue to be unspecialized, like the parent stem cells, the cells are said to be capable of long-term self-renewal.

The history of research on stem cells began in the 1950s, when medical researchers discovered that bone marrow contains at least two kinds of stem cells. One population, called hematopoietic stem cells, forms all the types of blood cells in the body. A second type makes up a smaller proportion of the bone marrow and can generate bone, cartilage, and fat cells. Typically, there is a very small number of stem cells available, and their capacity to divide is limited, making generation of large quantities of stem cells difficult.

An adult stem cell is thought to be an undifferentiated cell, found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ. The adult stem cell can renew itself and can differentiate to yield some or all of the major specialized cell types of the tissue or organ. The primary roles of adult stem cells in a living organism are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.

Research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement. Scientists have found adult stem cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible. Scientists now know that stem cells exist in the brain and the heart, two locations where adult stem cells were not expected. If the differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled in the laboratory, these cells may become the basis of transplantation-based therapies. Some examples of potential treatments include regenerating bone using cells derived from bone marrow stroma, developing insulin-producing cells for type 1 diabetes, and repairing damaged heart muscle following a heart attack with cardiac muscle cells.

There are two main methods used to identify adult stem cells: label the cells in a living tissue with molecular markers and then determine the specialized cell types they generate, or remove the cells from a living animal, label them in cell culture, and transplant them back into another animal to determine whether the cells are able to replace the original tissue. Adult stem cells are available to divide for a long period, when needed, and can give rise to mature cell types that have characteristic shapes and specialized structures and functions of a particular tissue. Embryonic stem cells can be grown relatively easily in culture. Adult stem cells are rare in mature tissues, so isolating these cells from an adult tissue is more challenging.

Scientists believe that tissues derived from embryonic and adult stem cells may differ in the likelihood of being rejected after transplantation. We don't yet know for certain whether tissues derived from embryonic stem cells would cause transplant rejection, since relatively few clinical trials have been conducted. Adult stem cells are currently believed less likely to initiate rejection after transplantation. This is because a patient's own cells may be expanded in culture, coaxed into assuming a specific cell type, and then reintroduced into the patient.

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