1. Treating illnesses
Stem cells found in bone marrow have been in use for 40 years to replace cells destroyed by high dose chemotherapy in a variety of cancers and blood diseases. As stem cells can create new tissues, they promise new treatments for conditions like spinal cord injury, where they may replace nerve cells destroyed in accidents, restoring the ability to walk and move the arms. Another example is strokes, where brain stem cells are important in restoring function after loss of brain tissue. They are also in advanced clinical trials for degenerative conditions like arthritis, macular degeneration, which causes blindness in an increasing number of people, and diabetes. There is early evidence that scientific knowledge gained from studying stem cells could provide a completely new approach to treating cancers.
2. Working out how important illnesses are caused
Stem cells can be altered to behave like abnormal cells found in illnesses. Cancer is a prime example. Scientists can use actual human cells to study conditions that could previously only be approached using animals. New techniques such as Induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPSC) enable scientists to study diseases in cells derived from the patient’s own faulty cells.
3. Understanding fundamental functions of living cells
Stem cells kept under the right conditions are immortal - they can be maintained forever. They therefore provide a unique medium for observing in depth the way living cells develop, work and repair themselves. Understanding the basic biology of stem cells is opening the doors to a vast field of new and vital research. This research drives the search for new cures for diseases that up to now have been difficult or impossible to treat effectively.