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What makes stem cells different?

What makes stem cells different?

Stem cells are different from other cells in the body in three main ways:

  • Stem cells are unspecialised. They have not developed into cells that perform a specific function. 

  • Stem cells can differentiate. This means they can divide and produce cells that have the potential to become other more specific cell types, tissues or organs. These new cells and tissues are used to repair or replace damaged or diseased cells in the body. Once cells have differentiated, they have less capacity to form multiple different cell types, and become ‘committed’ to becoming a particular cell type. Skin stem cells, for example, give rise to new skin cells when needed; to assist regeneration after damage and as part of the normal ageing process.

  • Stem cells are capable of self-renewal. Stem cells are able to divide and produce copies of themselves, which leads to self-renewal. Once a cell has become specialised (has differentiated) to a particular tissue or organ, it has a very limited capacity to self-renew (produce new stem cells) but instead produces only cells relevant to that organ.

Types of stem cells

Stem cells are with us right through to adulthood as part of the process to repair ageing or damaged tissues. 

There are four types of stem cells:

  • Adult Stem Cells (ASC) are found in most organs in the body and also in infants and children.  Sometimes they are called non-embryonic stem cells.
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPSC) are genetically modified mature adult cells. This means they are more like embryonic stem cells; a discovery which has eased concerns about using Embryonic Stem Cells.  iPSC act like pluripotent stem cells, which can change into any cell type. Using iPSC eliminates the need for embryonic stem cells in research.
  • Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) are found in early embryos. Their most important characteristic is their ability to turn into all the tissues of the body, called “pluripotency”.
  • Cord blood stem cells and amniotic fluid stem cells Cord blood stem cells are harvested from the umbilical cord after childbirth. They can be frozen in cell banks for use in the future.  These cells have been successfully used to treat children with blood cancers such as leukemia and certain genetic blood disorders.

Stem cells have also been found in amniotic fluid. This is the fluid that surrounds a developing baby inside the mother’s womb. However, more research is needed to help understand the potential uses of amniotic fluid stem cells.