Stem cells are the most basic type of cell in the human body which has the potential to become any type of cell depending on genetic and hormonal stimulation. Some of their unique properties, apart from the ability to become any type of cell (pluripotency) is that stems cells have an unlimited potential to divide into other stem cells.
The medical potential of stem cell therapy is limitless considering that most chronic diseases occur either as a dysfunction or damage of a certain type of cells, or groups of cells to make tissues. In these instances, transplants were the only chance of long term survival but in degenerative conditions involving the nerves, this was not possible.
There are many ethical issues about using embryonic stem cells for this type of therapy or the danger of these stem cells becoming cancerous.
Types of Stem Cells
Until recently, there were only two types of stem cells :
- Embryonic stem cells which could be found in an embryo or the placenta. These cells were usually sourced from fertilized ova (egg cells) that were intended for IVF (in-vitro fertilization) but never used by women. Informed consent was given for the medical use of these cells.
- Adult or somatic stem cells which could be found in limited quantities throughout the body. These types of stem cells had a limited capacity to differentiate into other types of cells and was not capable of continuous cell division.
Now there is a new type of stem cell which is known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC’s). First discovered in late 2007, these adult cells can be “reprogrammed” to revert to a stem cell state similar to embryonic stem cells. From here the stem cells can be influenced to differentiate into a specific type of cell, like a heart cell or liver cell.
Stem Cell Therapy for Transplants
Stem cell therapy seems to hold much promise in degenerative conditions by providing the affected site with undifferentiated cells which can be then used for repairing tissue damage. There is also the possibility that stem cells could be used to develop whole new organs which will be compatible with the patient and reduce the chances of transplant rejection.
Stem cell therapy has always been a controversial branch of medical research because previously the best stem cells were those sourced from embryos. Now with the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, there is much hope for revitalizing this field of medical research which was limited or banned in many countries.
Stem Cell Therapy for Degenerative Diseases
A degenerative disease such as Parkinson’s disease is where a specific type of cell or tissue is destroyed or malfunctioning and the body is unable to replenish it. The hope is that stem cell therapy would reintroduce new healthy cells or tissue to fulfil the same function and this could be produced in a laboratory.
Nerve cells cannot replicate and once their ability to repair themselves is exhausted, the cell may die or cease to function. Stem cell therapy would therefore have much to offer in neurological degenerative conditions but it is still in the early stages and the long term potential of such a therapy has yet to be established.