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Article by Richard Z. Zhuang & Roberta Lock
Stem Cells: What are they?
Stem cells are a unique class of cells defined by their ability to turn into numerous different cell types and divide indefinitely. Traditionally, stem cells can be classified into two categories: Somatic (adult) and Embryonic. Adult stem cells are found in certain tissues of the body and are only able to become a few cell types. However, they serve the important role of replenishing dead or damaged adult cells. For instance, hematopoietic (blood) stem cells in your bone marrow continuously produce blood cells, while skin stem cells continuously replenish your skin. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are only found at the very first stages of development, but are pluripotent, meaning they are able to become any of the cell types that make up the body.
Traditionally, biomedical research has largely been based on animal work since experiments on human cells were severely limited by what human cell-types scientists were able to source. The development of methods for generating and maintaining embryonic stem cells in the lab had huge implications on biomedical research: If scientists discovered how to recreate developmental processes in the lab, embryonic stem cells could be used as an unlimited source of any human cell-type to study. However, though embryonic stem cells are derived from donated lab-fertilized eggs, ethical controversies have significantly limited their use in scientific research.
In 2007, scientists discovered that, by using genetic reprogramming, adult cells can be reverted into a “stem cell-like” state. These engineered cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and are functionally equivalent to embryonic stem cells. This discovery meant that scientists could create pluripotent stem cells from any single person by simply taking cells from blood, skin, or even urine. Thereby overcoming the controversy that has surrounded stem cell research.
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As of today, iPSCs are the most widely used form of cells used in stem cell research. From recreating diseases in the lab to replacing damaged organs with your “own” lab grown cells, the promise of stem cell technology is enormous. Since its discovery, scientists have been racing to make these promises a reality.