Stem cells have been coveted by the media as a cure-all that can provide treatment for everything from diseases to injuries. The evidence has been mounting for the effectiveness of these cells as they have shown great promise treating diseases of the blood as well as allowing tissue grafts that can help relieve issues in the bone, skin, and the surface of the eye. However, there are still many misconceptions on what stem cells can actually do. The overall research and use of stem cells are still in their infancy. It is important to know the facts on these cells, rather than just the hype.

Get the facts on stem cells

More and more research is being undertaken regarding these cells as their usefulness shows tremendous promise. But what are stem cells exactly? Here are five facts that everyone should know about these cells. It is always advised to consult your doctor if you believe stem cells can help you or a loved one. Your doctor will be able to help you decide if this treatment option is right for you.

1. What is a stem cell?

Stem cells are the most basic type of cell in the body that act as a template for cell functions. Their primary difference from other cells in the body is that they are unspecialized, meaning they do not have tissue-specific structures or behaviors.

One of their jobs is to create additional stem cells, which is called self-renewal. Their other duty is to change to provide specialized cell functions, such as in the blood, brain, bones, and heart. This is called differentiation. A stem cell’s main goal is to replace injured cells and tissue that we lose everyday such as in the skin, hair, and blood.

2. Types of stem cells

There are three distinct types of stem cells:

  • Tissue-specific or adult stem cells: This kind of stem cell is semi-specialized and can produce many of the mature cells that are required in the particular issue or organ it resides in. This type is referred to as multipotent since it is capable of generating multiple specialized cell types. This kind of cell makes up a very small part of any tissue that requires constant regeneration, which is why it is so hard to utilize in practice.
  • Embryonic stem cells: This cell type is described as pluripotent, meaning it can create any cell type in the human body. This is one reason that they are so valuable. However, they can only be obtained from the blastocyst. This is a structure that forms in the beginning stages of mammal development and only contains approximately 200 – 300 cells.
  • Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS Cells): This is not a naturally-occurring state for stem cells, but rather it is a genetically reprogrammed adult cell. This reengineering allows an adult cell to act like an embryonic stem cell, essentially altering it to become pluripotent. While these cells are similar to natural embryonic cells, it is still unknown the exact reason this reprogramming technique creates pluripotent cells.

3. Stem cells can help with medical research

Stem cells can provide a huge boon to physicians and medical researchers. The hope is that these cells will be able to:

  • Be manipulated by medical techniques to become certain cell types that can be injected in various parts of the body. This will allow diseased cells to be replaced by healthy ones, which is known as regenerative medicine.
  • Be activated while still in the human body. This would remove the risk of injection by allowing the body to generate healthy cells internally to replace damaged tissue.
  • Provide an environment in which doctors can observe the progression of certain body cells giving a deeper understanding on how many illnesses and conditions develop.
  • Allow for new and safe testing space for pharmaceutical drugs without using animals or humans directly.

4. Current stem cell treatments

Currently, these treatments are in their infancy in research. It has been reported that they have huge promise, but the medical community only has a few scenarios in which it is a plausible and well-defined treatment option.

The two general categories that are believed to be safe are:

  • Hematopoietic or blood stem cell transplantation: This is an option that treats certain blood and immune system disorders. It can also help rebuild the blood system after certain cancer treatments.
  • Bone, skin, and eye treatments: This option uses a technique that grafts tissues onto the affected area and relies on stem cells within the tissue to stimulate the healing process.

5. Can these cells help with chronic pain?

Researchers at Duke University have revealed an exciting new stem cell based therapy. The study shows that the therapy could provide lasting relief for chronic pain caused by nerve damage. The team used stem cells called bone marrow stromal cells and injected them into mice with nerve damage.

It was discovered that these mice were much less sensitive to pain after the injection compared to untreated mice. This treatment has been shown to provide relief for quite some time, especially compared to analgesics. As Ru-Rong Ju, professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology in the Duke School of Medicine states:

“This analgesic effect was amazing. Normally, if you give an analgesic, you see pain relief for a few hours, at most a few days. But with bone marrow stem cells, after a single injection we saw pain relief over four to five weeks.”

What did you learn about stem cells today? If you want a more in-depth explanation, check out the National Institutes of Health information page about stem cells.

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