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Understanding Stem Cells and their Potential


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a great primer called Stem Cell Basics. If you read newspapers, watch TV, listen to the news or have kids in school, you are no doubt hearing about stem cells and stem cell research. Maybe you voted on it in a recent election. Maybe your church thinks it is evil. If you didn't graduate from college in the past 6 years, you may be afraid to admit you don't quite understand the issue.

  • Stem cells are basic cells that have the potential to develop into many other different cell types and possibly repair any body part as long as the being is living. That means that they are still "unspecialized", so a scientist may have the potential to manipulate a cell to develop into, say, a brain cell or a heart cell or a pancreatic cell. You can imagine that this would be useful to someone with brain damage, cardiac disease, or diabetes. A new field of medicine is developing from this scientific pursuit, called Regenerative or Reparative Medicine.
There are two different types of stem cells that researchers work with:
  • embryonic stem cells are derived from 5 day old embryos that have not been implanted in a uterus and were created by in vitro fertilization (IVF)
  • adult stem cells are unspecialized cells found in differentiated tissue. Scientists are not sure yet exactly how they function. Do they generate replacement cells for those that are lost through normal wear and tear, disease or injury?
Stem cells differ from all other cells in that they:
  • are able to divide and renew
  • they are unspecialized
  • they have the property of plasticity
These properties offer a lot of hope, especially to those trying to unravel the mysteries of neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's Disease. Neurological cell death has always been seen as hopeless, and generations of health care practitioners and scientists have been taught that once the brain starts wasting, as in the genetic illness Huntington's Disease, there is not much that can be done to reverse the process.

So horrifying is the specter of being diagnosed with Huntington's Disease, that many with a genetic history of it agonize about whether to even to be tested. Huntington's is a progressive wasting disease of the brain itself with a single faulty gene on chromosome 4 repeated in multiple copies. The human body is a interplay of proteins working together. Genes are a type of protein, which mutate or change. In the case of Huntington's Disease, the mutated gene causes, in adult life, damaged proteins to aggregate in the brain which destroy the neurons in the brain. People with this disease lose their speech, their personality changes, they become demented, they can no longer care for themselves, they become anxious, agitated, disoriented, and demented. Yet their loved ones are left to care for them.

Thank you merfer_99 for use of your photo Vena Cava.
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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