Stem Cell Technology in Medicine
By Sowmiya T on January 22, 2023
Biology is a vast field with many tutors on schoolhouse.world passionately teaching the subject. Some groundbreaking research in the field involves the study of stem cells. Why? In a world where the demand for donor organs exceeds the supply, stem cell technology may be the key to improving the lives of transplant recipients.
Stem cell technology refers to the use of devices and/or procedures to generate stem cells. For the purposes of this article, we can define stem cells as undifferentiated cells that do not yet have a specific function. They can be found in a variety of organisms, including plants. They are capable of being renewed through cell division, a reproductive process that, in this case, results in the formation of identical daughter cells. Because the cells are undifferentiated, they can generate different types of cells. Let’s explore this with an example.
Hematopoietic, or blood stem cells, are stem cells from which blood cells are derived. These cells are multipotent, meaning they can give rise to a variety of cells but only those related to blood function. They are commonly found in the umbilical cord blood and bone marrow, but they can also be found in the blood circulating our body. There are many different types of blood cells ranging from protective white blood cells (leukocytes) to platelets, which perform different functions in our immune systems to keep us healthy. These blood cells arise from blood stem cells.
The diagram above from Wikipedia illustrates how blood stem cells differentiate to form either common myeloid or lymphoid progenitors, which then specialize further. These specialized cells can be immune cells which protect the body or red blood cells that efficiently carry oxygen (red blood cells have a short lifespan of only 110-120 days)!
Our next questions are: How can stem cells be used in the medical field, and how will current and future developments impact the future of medicine?
One important application of stem cells is in the study of cancer. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cell division where undifferentiated cells spread quickly in the body. By understanding the processes stem cells undergo, we may be able to find ways to prevent the spread or development of cancer. Stem cells can also be used to treat patients with organ damage caused by chemotherapy or radiation treatment. They may be able to help prevent complications and improve outcomes for these patients.
Another potential use of stem cells in medicine is organ transplantations. When a patient receives a donor transplant, there is always the risk of the recipient rejecting the transplant. Finding organ donors can be a global challenge, putting many patients at risk of never receiving the organs they need. Stem cells may be a better option because they can be better suited to the patient's needs and may bypass issues with supply in the future. They may also ensure better and safer matches for patients. However, the ethics of stem cell based organ donation are complicated for a few reasons:
- Current demand for stem cells greatly exceeds the supply
- Available technology is still improving
- Socio-economic gap may affect who is eligible to receive stem cell based organ donations
- Biological barriers and side effects are still being researched
- Social stigma or fear surrounding stem cell based organ donations
The future of stem cells in medicine is bright and for good reason: they have the potential to save many lives! Perhaps in fifty years’ time, stem cells could be used to prevent fatal birth defects or extend the human lifespan. They may also be able to cure or put into remission diseases like cancer and many other currently chronic or incurable diseases. However, there is still much to learn about stem cells and how they function. We have a long way to go in fully understanding their potential and limitations.
Thank you Sharon V for editing this article!