What is a Stem Cell?

These days most everyone who knows anything about medicine has heard the term “Stem cells” and “Stem Cell Treatments” of all kinds.

Stem Cells have been in the news, are advertised in the newspapers and have been available for years, but right now, their only “FDA Approved” use is in blood disorders.
But What is a Stem Cell and what does it do?

Stem cells are precursor cells that can become any cell

Stem cells are in all of us. They are building block cells that eventually grow into every different type of cell in our bodies.

What makes these cells special? Why are they different from normal cells?

The reason stem cells are different is that they are “undifferentiated” cells, meaning they have yet to begin to change into a specific cell type. To understand this, we have to consider the development process and understand what happens when we are born.

Our Development Process

Initially, when a child is developing in the mother, that child begins as only one cell, an egg that has been fertilized by a sperm.

Sperm and egg cell, ovum.

That one cell has the power to become any part of us, such as brain, lungs, muscle, nerve, etc. As the development process continues the one cell turns into two, then the two cells turn into four, then eight, and so on. As there are more and more cells, each cell becomes more specialized. Some cells become heart cells, others muscle or bone and some other organs. Once a cell specializes, it can never be anything else.

                                                                 Stem cells never specialize

But during development some of these cells never become specialized. Instead they stop developing and keep their ability to become one of many different types of cells. These are stem cells.

Stem cells retain the ability to become many different types of tissue, and they remain in our bodies laying quietly, waiting to be called into action. Besides being able to become any cell type they also retain the ability to duplicate themselves, creating more stem cells.

We have known that stem cells existed for many decades. Our first understanding of stem cells was the discovery of precursor cells in our bone marrow that could become any type of blood cell. That is the basis for “bone marrow transplants” in leukemia. Until recently researchers did not realize we had stem cells in many places other than our bone marrow. We know now that these stem cells exist in our bones, in muscle, skin, teeth and even our brains.

Why are stem cells important?

Do you know anyone who is on dialysis?

A young male on a dialysis machine

If so, you likely understand that the reason that person has to go to a clinic three times a week for several hours each day is because their kidneys no longer work properly. Patients on dialysis often hope they will receive a kidney transplant to solve their kidney problems and end their need for dialysis.

But what if you had kidney failure and instead of a transplant, your doctor said that he was going to inject your kidney with some stem cells, and grow you a new kidney. This sounds ridiculous, but it is not. It is the future. Cellular therapy and Tissue engineering will one day cause this to happen.

We cannot grow new kidneys from stem cells yet, but work is being done now through the University of Southern California Stem Cell Initiative to try to develop stem cells into small organs. Tissue engineering has already produced a lab created bladder that was implanted, and from which the young patient found tremendous relief.  One day we will no longer need transplants of organs, but simply transplants of cells that can develop into organs. Stem cells and cellular therapy are the future of medicine.

Research is ongoing in using stem cells for organ development, but Freddie Fu at the University of Pittsburgh has already shown that stem cells can regenerate cartilage in the lab. We don’t yet know if that same thing happens in humans, when these cells are injected to treat arthritis, but there is reason to believe it may. This can be an incredible treatment option for knee arthritis or hip arthritis and there are already many case reports of such success.

Stem cells hold enormous potential to treat a variety of medical problems. One day we will use them to restore heart tissue injured by heart attacks, or to create new organs damaged by disease. Just as the Bluetail Skink has the ability to “lose its tail” and then regrow it later, the use of stem cells may one day allow us to grow new limbs. Stem cell research is ongoing around the world and its long term potential is incredible.

Though we are years from organ development using stem cells, we already are using cellular therapy to treat arthritis and spine disease. There are ongoing studies and many case reports that cell therapy may already provide some relief in joint and spine pain.

If you are suffering from arthritis or injury and think you may be a cellular candidate, don’t wait any longer. Come see us and let us help you explore these options, and make sure you have tried all conventional options.

Contact us for an appointment.