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How do stem cells work?

Stem cells are the source of all the cells that form the human body. Non-specialised embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any cell in the body, whilst specialised stem cells replenish a certain type of cell.

In adults, stem cells act as a backup of new cells to replenish old ones when they die out. For example, when a heart stem cell divides, it forms a new heart cell and another heart stem cell ensuring the body remains healthy. The heart stem cell survives as a source of new heart cells.

Embryonic stem cells are formed in the first two weeks after conception and create all of the cells that make up a foetus. These cells can become any cell in the human body which makes them of great interest to scientists.

Stem cells could potentially be used for transplants, treating diabetes and curing degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. Embryonic stem cells, from excess embryos, could be harnessed to treat many patient afflictions, since they can become any cell in the body.

Alternatively, a patient’s own specialised adult stem cells could be used to treat some ailments. As these are harvested from the patient’s own stem cells, there is less chance of rejection, however specialised adult stem cells are less adaptable than embryonic stem cells.