By Diya Ramesh (‘23)
When we last saw our mighty superhero, the stem cell, it was being questioned on just how powerful it is. Is our great hero a fake? Thankfully, not at all. Just what is it, though, that makes stem cells such heroes? Well, it’s actually the fact that they don’t have set jobs. You heard me right, folks, because unemployment is our hero’s greatest advantage.
First of all, in general, stem cells’ capabilities are a natural part of the body. They divide into cells that become a specific type of cell or even become other stem cells. Some examples of regions where stem cells have been found are the brain, bone marrow, blood and blood vessels, skeletal muscles, skin, and liver. In our previous edition, we discussed how adult stem cells can become the specific type of cells that are needed in the region where they are located. Well, now researchers are finding more information that indicates that these adult stem cells could become other types of cells (like bone marrow stem cells having the capability to make bone or heart cells), not just cell types that are alike.
Now, our body uses stem cells to replenish tissues, which can be used for fixing damage and maintenance. However, scientists are interested in harnessing these capabilities to solve problems. For example, one goal is to use stem cells for tissue regeneration and regenerative medicine, which is essentially just making healthy cells in place of cells that are subject to disease or harm. Scientists could even potentially grow an entire organ for replacement. One existing example of this type of application is how doctors have created skin tissue with stem cells that were just below the surface of the skin and then grafted this new skin onto the area of concern (for areas with serious burns and other damage). Another possible application is creating new blood vessels for people with cardiovascular diseases. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital claimed that they successfully did this in mice, using human stem cells, in 2013. The blood vessels formed within two weeks of putting the stem cells into the mice and were of the same standard as existing vessels.
Additionally, scientists are also interested in stem cells for research. For example, after ensuring that stem cells become a certain type of cell, they can be used to test drugs that would be used on these types of cells. This can help see if drugs are safe, before giving these drugs to actual people. Stem cells can also teach scientists about disease development. Problems with cell division and differentiation can cause problems like cancer and other diseases. So, understanding these processes in stem cells can yield knowledge that could be translated to these diseases.
Also, scientists have already used stem cells in some treatments. For example, in stem cells transplants (bone marrow transplants), stem cells can be used to take the place of chemotherapy-damaged or diseased cells or are a method for the immune system of the donor to battle certain cancers or diseases tied to the blood. Although our superhero has so much potential and has already been a boon to society, with the help of its trusty sidekick, otherwise known as scientists, it can go even further!