Stem cells:

What they are and what they do

Stem cells offer great promise for new medical treatments. Learn about stem cell types, current and possible uses, and the state of research and practice.

You've heard about stem cells in the news, and perhaps you've wondered if they might help you or a loved one with a serious disease. You may wonder what stem cells are, how they're being used to treat disease and injury, and why they're the subject of such vigorous debate.

Stem cells are the body's raw materials — cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells.

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Why is there such an interest in stem cells?

Researchers hope stem cell studies can help to:

  • Increase understanding of how diseases occur. By watching stem cells mature into cells in bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs and tissue, researchers may better understand how diseases and conditions develop.
  • Generate healthy cells to replace cells affected by disease (regenerative medicine). Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used in people to regenerate and repair tissues that have been damaged or affected by disease.
  • People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis.

  • Test new drugs for safety and effectiveness. Before using investigational drugs in people, researchers can use some types of stem cells to test the drugs for safety and quality. This type of testing will most likely first have a direct impact on drug development for cardiac toxicity testing.

Stem cell transplant side effects

Loss of Appetite
Mouth Sores
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Stem cells transplants are complicated procedures that are very expensive. They require long hospital stays at special treatment centers and require the services of many health care providers. If you do not live nearby, you will need to stay in a hotel or apartment when you are not in the hospital. If you have no problems, you can go home 100 days after you’ve received the donor stem cells. But you will need to be closely followed by a doctor who has experience in taking care of people who have had a stem cell transplant.

A stem cell transplant can take a few months to complete. The process begins with treatment with high doses of chemotherapy and maybe radiation therapy. This treatment goes on for a week or two. Once you have finished, you will have a few days to rest. After receiving the stem cells, you begin the recovery phase. During this time, doctors will follow the progress of the new blood cells by checking your blood counts often. As the new stem cells produce blood cells, your blood counts will go up. Even after your blood counts return to normal, it takes much longer for your immune system to fully recover—several months for autologous transplants, and 1 to 2 years for allogeneic or syngeneic transplants.

Whether or not you can work during a stem cell transplant may depend on the type of job you have. The process of a stem cell transplant, with the high-dose treatments, the transplant, and recovery, can take many months. You will be in and out of the hospital during this time. Even when you are not in the hospital, sometimes you will need to stay near it, rather than staying in your own home.

When most people think about about stem cells treating disease they think of a stem cell transplant.
In a stem cell transplant, stem cells are first specialized into the necessary adult cell type. Then, those mature cells replace tissue that is damaged by disease or injury. This type of treatment could be used to:
  • Replace neurons damaged by spinal cord injury, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease or other neurological problems;
  • Produce insulin that could treat people with diabetes or cartilage to repair damage caused by arthritis; or
  • Replace virtually any tissue or organ that is injured or diseased.

In theory, there's no limit to the types of diseases that could be treated with stem cell research. Given that researchers may be able to study all cell types they have the potential to make breakthroughs in any disease.

Many overseas clinics – and a growing number here in the U.S. too – advertise “miraculous” stem cell therapies for a wide range of incurable diseases. This phenomenon is called stem cell tourism and is currently a source of concern for reputable stem cell scientists. These predatory clinics are offering therapies that have not been tested to prove they are effective or even safe. In recent few years, some patients who visited those clinics have died, others have been left blind or had serious infections as a result of receiving unproven and untested stem cells.

Stem cells hold the potential to treat a wide range of diseases. However, the path from the lab to the clinic is a long one. Before testing those cells in a human disease, researchers must grow the right cell type, find a way to test those cells, and make sure the cells are safe in animals before moving to human trials.
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