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What is a stem cell?

Every human body is made up of different types of cells, such as the rod and cone cells in the eye which enable us to see. There are around 200 different cell types, with specific jobs, but the stem cell is the only cell with the ability to develop into any cell type in the body.

Stem cells ensure that, as the body grows, it has the new cells that it needs. These cells can divide over and over, and as they do, they change into specialised cells to replace any cells that are lost or damaged.

Main types of stem cell

Embryonic stem cells

These cells create new cells for an embryo as it develops into a baby. They are known as ‘pluripotent’ cells, which means they can become any cell in the body, as needed.

Adult stem cells

These cells replace other damaged cells and supply new cells to the body. Adult stem cells are not pluripotent, however. They can only change into certain cells, for example, blood cells can only become other blood cells.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

Also known as IPS cells, these cells are made in a laboratory, by reprogramming adult cells to become stem cells. Just like embryonic stem cells, they can change into any cell type in the body.

What can stem cells do for us?

Stem cell research is such a promising and exciting field, with the chance to more deeply understand how our bodies work. We can also learn more about what goes wrong with our bodies, and perhaps learn how to tackle and cure diseases, such as cancer and motor neurone disease.

Researchers can also grow human organs and tissue from stem cells, which can then be studied to see the effect of different drugs on the cells.

It may be possible one day to grow a new heart in the lab from your own cells that were kept in stem cell storage, and then transplant it back into you. With stem cell banking, we may even be able to store stem cells in a private stem cell bank, in case anything happens to us and we later need treatment.

The possibilities for curing diseases and conditions are endless. Think it’s science fiction? Well, it’s not. Today, stem cell therapy is being used to restore blood cells in people with cancer who lost their blood cells through the treatment they received, and there are many other possibilities in development.