Updated: Feb 17
Author: Suhani Patel
Editors: Kira Tian and Megan Liu
Artist: Kevin Li
Stem cells are important to organisms for many reasons. Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potential for treating diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. However, a lot of work still needs to be done in laboratories and clinics to understand how to use stem cells for therapies, also referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.
Laboratory studies of stem cells allow scientists to learn about their essential properties and what makes them different from other specialized cell types. Scientists are already using stem cells in the laboratory to screen new drugs and develop model systems to study normal growth and identify the causes of congenital disabilities.
Research on stem cells advances our knowledge about how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms. Stem cell research is one of the fascinating areas of contemporary biology; but, as with many other expanding fields of scientific inquiry, research on stem cells raises lots of scientific questions as rapidly as it generates discoveries.
Here are a few of the ways stem cells are being used:
To study normal human development. Scientists are investigating how stem cells can form tissues and organs and how aging impacts stem cells’ functions and roles in various diseases and other health conditions. A better understanding of the inner workings of living organisms leads to earlier detection, better diagnosis, and more effective treatments.
In drug discovery, the process is where new drugs are identified for a particular disease. Scientists can use stem cells and tissues grown from stem cells, to search for new drugs that have better functions or can alter the progress of the disease, as well as to test how drugs might affect different organs—for example, the liver or the kidneys—or how they might affect different types of people.
For cell replacement. Scientists are exploring how to use stem cells to generate tissue that, when transplanted, will take the place of tissue damaged by disease, aging, or injury. For example, the transplantation of healthy retinal pigment epithelial cells to the eye to replace those lost in macular degeneration is now tested in clinical trials.
For endogenous, or self-repair. Scientists are exploring ways to stimulate self-repair by coaxing stem cells into the human body. This generates healthy cells that heal damaged tissue from within and can prevent further damage.
Stem cell research holds tremendous promise for medical treatments. But, at the same time, scientists still have much to learn about how scientists learn about how stem cells—and the specialized cells they generate—work in the body, as well as their capacity for healing.
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