Function of Stem Cells and Their Future Roles in Healthcare
Stem cell biology has come of age. Stem cells are found in the early embryo, the foetus, amniotic fluid, the placenta and umbilical cord blood. After birth and for the rest of life, stem cells continue to reside in many sites of the body, including skin, hair follicles, bone marrow and blood, brain and spinal cord, the lining of the nose, gut, lung, joint fluid, muscle, fat, and menstrual blood, to name a few. A stem cell can reproduce itself over and over again (a special trick known as “self-renewal” or “self-replication”). Stem cells have enormous potential in health and medical research. For example, researching the differentiation processes and understanding to control stem cell differentiation in the laboratory is providing insights into how humans develop from embryo to adult. Directing the growth of cells or tissues can be used for specific purposes such as modeling diseases, drug screening or cell-based therapies. Research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement. This finding has led researchers and clinicians to ask whether adult stem cells could be used for transplants. Scientists now have evidence that stem cells exist in the brain and the heart. If the differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled in the laboratory, these cells may become the basis of transplantation-based therapies. Despite the fact that stem cell research has been advancing fast, there are many challenges ahead to allow the use of stem cells for drug discovery or regenerative medicine.