Stem Cell Research
Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types during early life and growth of an organism and also serve as an internal repair system throughout the life of an organism. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to remain a stem cell or become a specialized cell. Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types in two important ways. First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, and second, they can be induced to become specialized under certain conditions.
There are three types of stem cells: embryonic, adult, and induced pluripotent stem cells. Embyronic stem cells are pluripotent naturally, which means they can differentiate into any other type of specialized cell. Adult stem cells are limited in their ability to differentiate, appearing only to be able to generate cell types found in the tissue from which they originated. As such, there are several types of adult stem cells: hemapoietic, which form blood cells; mesenchymal, which generate bone, cartilage, and fat cells; epithelial, which form the cells that line the digestive tracts; skin, which form the epidermis; and neural, which form the cell types found in the nervous system. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are adult cell types that have been reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state through a well controlled process of genetic modification.
Research on stem cells is focused on several key objectives. The first is to gain a greater understanding of the basic biology of stem cells, including information about how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in an adult organism. This step is essential in order to realize other objectives, such as the use of stem cells in cell-based assays to support drug discovery or as a means by which diseases can be treated or cured. Not surprisingly, researchers are interested in what factors allow stem cells to remain unspecialized as well as what factors can induce them into a specialized type.
Stem cells have already proven to be invaluable tools for life science and drug discovery research, particularly iPSCs. They can be used to help researchers understand the complex events that occur during human development, including the roles of molecular and genetic signals that regulate cell division and differentiation. They can also provide cell-based models with which researchers can investigate the cell signaling pathways that contribute to cell form and function. In addition, stem cells can be used to test the safety and efficacy of new drugs in a system that more closely mimics the native human condition. And, stem cells hold true promise as the basis for the development of cell-based therapies to directly treat or even cure numerous diseases.
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