What Are Stem Cells And How Do They Work?

Did you know that stem cells have been used to study diseases, test drugs for safety and quality, and stimulate the body’s natural healing process? Stem cell technology is one of the advancing frontiers in science.

From the groundbreaking discovery of a method to derive stem cells from human embryos to more innovations like transforming normal adult cells into stem cells, stem cell technology continues to offer solutions to a number of medical conditions.

Treatments for numerous diseases have been discovered through stem cell therapy, and more research is being done on how to employ stem cells to treat more medical conditions. Patients with degenerative diseases can opt for stem cell treatment specifically targeted to improve their health state.

What are stem cells used for, and why are they such a buzzword in the news? This article answers these questions and more!

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are cells with the distinct ability to differentiate into other cells or divide into copies of themselves. They are found in many parts of the body and are present throughout the lifetime of a human.

During the embryonic stage, stem cells are found as embryonic stem cells, which differs from those found in the adult body, referred to as adult stem cells. The embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can differentiate into all types of cells in the human body. In contrast, adult stem cells can only differentiate into tissue or organ cells found in their environment.

Another type of stem cell is the perinatal stem cell, discovered to be present in amniotic fluid— a fluid found in the sac that surrounds and protects a developing fetus in the womb. Perinatal stem cells are also found in the umbilical cord blood. They have been found to have characteristics of both embryonic and adult stem cells.

In recent years, scientists have found genetic reprogramming techniques to transform normal adult cells into stem cells. This groundbreaking discovery can prevent the patient’s immune system from rejecting stem cells from donated sources, as is sometimes seen as the side effect when embryonic stem cells are used for therapy.

What are the stem cells’ functions?

Stem cells are distinct from other cells of the body because of the following properties:

  1. They keep on replicating themselves for long periods, an ability that is absent in other body cells.
  2. They do not have specialized functions at the onset; for example, a red blood cell carries oxygen to different body areas, which is a specialized function that all red blood cells carry out. However, a stem cell does not have a specialized role until it gets differentiated to a particular body cell type.
  3. Lastly, only stem cells can give rise to other body cells. A stem cell can divide into blood cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, liver cells, etc.

What are mesenchymal stem cells?

The mesenchymal stem cell (MSCs) is a type of adult stem cell found in many body tissues but initially in the bone marrow. They are discovered to be actively involved in tissue regeneration to differentiate into bone, cartilage, and tendon cells. It is used for the safe and effective treatment of orthopedic conditions such as avascular necrosis, osteoarthritis, traumatic bone, and muscle injuries.

Stem cell therapy based on MSCs is also applied in neurodegenerative disorders, heart diseases, and rejuvenating treatments. 

This type of stem cell is known as immune-privileged. They also cannot multiply uncontrollably and therefore have no associated side effects.

How stem cell therapy works

Given stem cells’ unique behaviors and properties, they are rapidly being employed in developing novel therapeutic procedures — each stem cell therapy process based on the different conditions to be treated.

Some medical conditions aim to be a regenerative system to replenish cells in injured tissues and organs. At the same time, it is used to stimulate the natural healing process of the human body in many disease categories. 

Within the therapy, at first, the stem cells are cultured in a lab where the cells divide into daughter cells. Then, these cells are injected into the patient’s body (locally, into the bloodstream, into the muscle, etc.) where they transfer to the targeted site of action and start stimulating the growth of tissue or organ in its environment. 

What are the therapeutic effects of stem cell therapy?

The ability of stem cells to differentiate into any desired body cell provides innovative technology with therapeutic effects, which includes:

  • Repair of damaged and inflamed cells in any part of the body
  • Development of new tissues and organs
  • Organ transplant where cells are used and not donor organs which are of limited supply

Scientists propose using stem cell technology in treating several degenerate diseases and effective tissue and organ restoration.

What diseases stem cells can treat

Scientists have discovered multiple disease conditions that can be treated with cell-based therapy, from orthopedic and neurological to auto-immune conditions. The benefits of stem cells are also used to treat cancer, including leukemia and cardiovascular diseases. Stem cell technology is proven to treat the following medical conditions:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Asthma and COPD
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Stroke
  • Carrion’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Neuropathy
  • Multiple system atrophy
  • Macular degeneration

Stem cells for autism have been also researched and found to have beneficial effects. More research is going on to develop stem cell treatments for other disease conditions.

What outcomes can be expected after stem cell therapy

Stem cell therapy is a proven treatment method for many medical conditions; however, it’s not a magical treatment where an injection of stem cells offers you instant recovery, nor is it a one-treatment-for-all therapy!

Stem cell therapy, which usually involves an injection of stem cells into the body to replenish damaged cells, only marks the beginning of the treatment. The recovery process after the procedure, during which the positive changes may be seen, can take weeks and sometimes months.

Unlike other medical treatments, mesenchymal stem cell therapy has no side effects. The rare adverse reactions of stem cell therapy may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Dyspnea
  • Confusion

Most patients have been successfully treated using stem cell therapy, with few adverse effects reported. If you’re considering stem cell therapy, you can contact a stem cell treatment center to learn more about the treatment procedure for your medical condition.

Stem cells are parent cells that divide into daughter cells with specific functionality or daughter cells that function as stem cells. There is a ton of research ongoing to discover more ways to use stem cell technology in stem cell therapy. Stem cell therapy is currently used to treat many disease conditions. Do you think stem cell therapy is key to discovering cures for presently incurable diseases?