Chances are, you have read or heard numerous references to stem cells in recent months. While you might have a general idea of what stem cells are, you understandably might not be 100 percent sure how they differ from regular cells, and why there is so much excitement about them.
With that in mind, let's start out by looking at what stem cells are and why they are so important and then examine a few promising new medical procedures that are being developed thanks to advancements in stem cell research.
Stem Cells 101
Stem cells are different from other cells in two key ways: they are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves through cell division, and under certain conditions, they can be influenced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with certain functions, according to the National Institute of Health. Because stem cells have this really cool power to develop into different specific types of cells, they are being studied for their ability to divide and repair worn out or damaged areas of the body.
Stem Cells and Autism
To understand how stem cells may help people who have been diagnosed with autism, we have to get kind of technical for a minute. Basically, according to Cell Medicine, autism has been linked to inflammatory and neuro-inflammatory cytokines. While current therapies try to reverse this inflammation, none of them address the root cause. As research is finding, treating autism with stem cells that are derived from umbilical cord tissue can decrease this specific type of inflammation, which can in turn alleviate the symptoms.
This means expectant parents can choose to bank cord blood at their child’s birth, and then if the need arises down the road, it will be safely stored at the cord blood registry and ready for use.
Stem Cells and Cancer
One of the most widely used stem cell-based therapies is for bone marrow transplants, according to California's Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Blood-forming stem cells that are found in bone marrow were the first stem cells to be identified and used in a clinical setting. Thanks to stem cells, thousands of people around the world who are battling a blood cancer like leukemia have been helped. Research is also underway to see if stem-cell bone marrow transplants will help with autoimmune disorders and in helping to reduce the risk of rejection after an organ transplant.
Stem Cells and Arthritis
Regenexx, a national network of doctors specializing in regenerative medicine protocols, offers a same day stem cell treatment that involves using the patient's own stem cells to help improve their arthritis. After drawing blood from the person's arm, it is processed in the lab along with a stem cell sample. Then, the stem cells and natural growth factors that were taken from the patient's blood platelets will be reinjected into the body into the area that needs repair.
So what's next with stem cells? We'll have to wait and see.
The medical advancements involving stem cells are certainly groundbreaking and encouraging; it seems like it is a matter of time before they are linked to helping even more medical conditions. By staying abreast of research on stem cells, it will be interesting to see where the medical research goes next.