Stem Cell Culture
There has been a great deal of talk in the media in recent years about the success of stem cell research. But what are stem cells, really? This is a basic overview, hopefully in layman’s terms, to make this topic a bit more understandable.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are unspecialised cells, which means they are not specific to any type of tissue that allows it to perform specialised functions. For example, heart muscle cells work to pump blood through the body, red blood cells carry oxygen through the bloodstream, and nerve cells send electrochemical signals to other cells which enable the body to perform functions such as speaking or walking. What stem cells can do is to give rise to specialised cells. They can replicate themselves many times over, and for long periods of time, something specialised cells cannot do. As long as the cells continue to replicate unspecialised, this process is called proliferation. There are two different types of cells scientists are currently using to conduct research: embryonic stem cells,, which are derived from embryos, and adult stem cells, which are found among differentiated cells in organs and tissue.
Scientists are only just beginning to understand the conditions that cause unspecialised cells to mature into specialised cells, known as differentiation. This process is controlled by genes, which are spread along strands of DNA. Every gene has its own code of instructions on how it is supposed to function.
At this point in time, scientists still have more questions than answers. The two main issues they are investigating are:
- Why can embryonic cells proliferate for at least a year without differentiating, while adult cells can’t?
- What causes stem cell proliferation and renewal?
These are the most critical issues facing scientists, because, once these questions are answered, they can begin to control the culture of stem cells and formulate them in order to perform a specific task.
One of the most important discoveries scientists have made recently is the potential of stem cells to treat Parkinson’s Disease. A particular cell type, called a DA neuron, is required to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s, and laboratories are now able to create methods to cause embryonic stem cells to differentiate into cells with all the capabilities of this DA neuron. This type of scientific research gives great hope for the treatment of Parkinson’s and many other diseases in the future.