Stem Cells: What Are They?

Your life literally depends upon stem cells. So if you’ve heard about them or not, they are kind of a big deal. As you read this stem cells are busy in every part of your body helping you to heal from every day wear and tear or injury, and aiding in the process of regeneration; replacing old, diseased or injured tissue with fresh new cells.

The jarring truth behind these amazing, life sustaining cells is that their discovery resulted from two of the most lethal events in mankind’s history. The people exposed to nuclear fallout from atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, who did not immediately perish, suffered devastating health problems, leading researchers (searching for a cure) to discover stem cells.

Think of stem cells as the body’s tool repair kit for restoring old or damaged tissue. Perhaps now you’re beginning to understand why scientists and physicians are working on novel means to harness the healing capabilities of stem cells, toward combating a host of diseases (ranging from joint problems to heart disease). Researchers are closing in on how to treat patients with their own stem cells, as well as banked genetically-matched donor stem cells. Imagine helping patients with diabetes regulate their disease by replacing their damaged pancreatic tissue with healthy insulin producing cells, or repairing the wounded heart muscle in a heart attack victim with new cardiac muscle cells. This is the long-term promise of the rapidly growing medical specialty known as regenerative medicine.

The concept of applying stem cells to disease models has been around for well over a half a century in the form of stem cell transplants. Bone marrow or stem cell transplants have become a gold standard in both replacing cells damaged by chemotherapy, and to fight against some types of cancer or blood related diseases (i.e. lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma and neuroblastoma). Regenerative medicine may also usher in a new era of organ donation as researchers and scientists unlock the secrets of cultivating disease and defect free specialized organ-specific cells, which are capable of thriving in a host patient. -- A comforting thought for the tens of thousands of individuals awaiting a donor organ.

Dr. Joseph Fortin, DO Dr. Joseph Fortin is the Medical Director at Spine Technology and Rehabilitation and a Clinical Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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