Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in the laboratory and to give rise to specialized cells. Stem cells are different from other types of cells because they are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves through cell division (sometimes after long periods of inactivity) and under certain circumstances they can be induced to become tissue-specific or organ-specific cells that have special functions.
Stem cells regularly divide in the gut and bone marrow in order to replace and repair worn out or damaged tissues. However, stem cells in the pancreas and heart divide only once under special conditions.
Stem cells have the ability to develop into many different types of cells in the body early in life and during growth. When stem cells divide, they can remain a stem cell or they may become another type of cell (such as muscle cells, red blood cells, brain cells) with a more specialized function.
Embryonic stem cells are primitive cells that are derived from a 5 day old embryo that has not been implanted that is capable of dividing without differentiating for a long period of time in culture and are known to develop into cells and tissues of three distinct cell layers. Adult stem cells are relatively rare with a limited capacity to renew in the lab and limited capacity for differentiation (they are usually limited to the type of cells in the organ from which they came).
Stem cells are critical to life. In a blastocyst (a 3 to 5 day old embryo), the inner cells are the basis for the specialized types of cells and organs that include the heart, lungs, skin, sperm, and eggs, etc. And in adult tissues such as bone marrow, muscle, and the brain, specific adult stem cells help replace cells that are lost because of normal wear and tear of the body, through injury, or as the result of disease.
Research on stem cells began in 1981 when mouse embryonic stem cells were first derived from mouse embryos. In 1998, researchers began to derive human embryonic stem cells from human embryos and grow them in the laboratory. Many advances have been made in embryonic stem cell research since then, although some research has been hampered at times by political and ethical views that have restricted or limited such research. Stem cell research remains very exciting, nonetheless, because stem cells may offer new and effective treatments for people with diseases such as diabetes and heart disease because of the unique regenerative abilities of stem cells.
The medical research field is both exciting and promising. New and experimental treatments and therapies such as stem cell therapy may some day in the not-too-distant future offer real and widespread benefits to fight human disease and to reduce human suffering. While we may praise medical research and medical researchers for many medical advancements that we have enjoyed, we must realistically acknowledge that medical treatment is only effective when it is appropriate and when it is provided with proper care.
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