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What most of us know about stem cells is likely through the image of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. While Dolly was an interesting medical breakthrough resulting from stem cell research and cloning, her place in science history is just one of the many successes in this field. But what exactly are stem cells and how did they lead to this breakthrough? Let's find out!
Image Source: yourgenome.org
Stem cells, also known as undifferentiated or "blank" cells, are cells that can give rise to all other cells with specialized functions. Under favorable conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells can divide and give rise to daughter cells that have the potential to develop into various cell types with different functions in different parts of the body. Some of these daughter cells can become new stem cells, while others can differentiate into specialized cells with specific functions in a particular organ. For example, red blood cells are specialized cells that are designed to carry oxygen throughout the bloodstream.
Unlike normal cells in the body that can only replicate a limited number of times before they are broken down; stem cells can differentiate and divide indefinitely, allowing them to make an unlimited number of copies of themselves. This unique ability makes stem cells a powerful tool for the body's repair system, as they can generate healthy cells to replace those affected by disease. The study of stem cells is crucial for the future of medicine, as several studies have reported great potential for treating degenerative conditions through the transplantation of human stem cells into patients.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that are 3-5 days old at the blastocyst stage, when the embryo only has about 150 cells. These stem cells are obtained through an assisted reproductive technology called in vitro fertilization (IVF), where the embryo is fertilized in a laboratory instead of within a female body.
Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized and lack the specific characteristics, such as shape or gene expression pattern, that would allow them to perform specific functions in the body. They are considered to be the most powerful type of stem cell, as they have the potential to become virtually any type of cell in the body. In other words, embryonic stem cells have the ability to regenerate or repair any damaged tissue or organ.
The term adult stem cells are obtained from mature tissues such as skin, brain, umbilical cord tissue, and bone marrow. Although the term "adult" is used, these stem cells can also be found in infants and children too. What distinguishes adult stem cells from embryonic stem cells is their ability to only regenerate themselves into new cells to maintain and repair the tissue or muscle in the area where disease is present. Unlike embryonic stem cells, they cannot differentiate into as many other types of cells. For example, blood stem cells can only develop into new blood cells, but not skin or brain cells.
However, recent evidence suggests that adult stem cells may also have the capacity to differentiate into other types of cells. For instance, bone marrow stem cells may be able to create heart muscle (cardiac) cells, not just limited to blood cells alone. Having said that, further research is still needed to fully understand the capabilities of adult stem cells, establish the safety profile and efficacy of therapies using these cells.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are stem cells created in a laboratory setting. The term “induced” refers to their genetic reprogramming, which gives them the pluripotent properties of embryonic stem cells. In simple terms, the properties of adult cells are altered to possess the properties of embryonic stem cells through genetic modification. Scientists achieve this by introducing specific genes into adult cells such as blood or skin cells using viral vectors or other methods. As a result, iPSCs can self-renew and differentiate into any cell type desired.
An advantage of iPSCs is that they can be derived from a patient's own cells, reducing the risk of immune rejection associated with using embryonic or adult stem cells from a donor. This allows for a better understanding of disease development and targeted drug discovery without causing adverse effects to patients.However, more extensive research is needed before iPSCs can be widely used. Scientists are still working to find safe and effective methods for producing and utilising iPSCs.
Stem cell therapy involves the use of stem cells or their derivatives to enhance the body's natural healing process and repair damaged, injured, or diseased tissues. It operates by exploiting the anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, self-renewal, and differentiation characteristics of stem cells to promote positive changes within the body.
The first instance of stem cell therapy was recorded in 1958 by Georges Mathe, a French oncologist, who performed the first bone marrow transplantation and saved six nuclear researchers who were exposed to high levels of radiation.
Since then, stem cell therapy has been applied to various medical conditions, including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory conditions, and neurological disorders. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health has approved only bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cell transplantation to treat hematological disorders, such as leukemia and thalassemia. The use of stem cell therapy for other conditions is underway.
It is worth noting that stem cells DO NOT necessarily provide a cure for diseases, but rather they allow the body to heal itself by replacing damaged cells with healthy ones, thereby minimizing the symptoms of the disease. In many cases, this alone can improve the quality of life of affected patients and delay disease progression.
Patients who require blood stem cell treatment sometimes do not have a family member with a suitable blood stem cell. In these cases, they are compelled to search for an unrelated compatible donor.
MSCR is a registry of people who are willing to donate their stem cells to patients in need. If you are a healthy Malaysian free from any blood diseases and aged between 18 - 50 years old, you may register as a blood stem cell donor!
Visit http://mscr.makna.org.my/ to donate..
This article is written by Janelle Leong, Bpharm(Hons) (DOC2US),
reviewed by Ashwini Nair, MB BCh BAO
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