What are stem cells?

Stem cells are of significant scientific interest and the subject of an ever increasing amount of research aiming to apply stem cells as medical therapies for the regeneration of human tissue. Stem cells are specialised cells which have the ability to replicate and transform into a range of different tissue and organ specific cell types. Stem cell therapy involves the delivery of cells to augment, replace or initiate the production of essential molecules or matrix from cells that are missing or damaged due to disease, ageing or trauma. Currently, the most common forms of cell therapy include blood and platelet transfusions and bone marrow transplants.

Bone marrow transplantation is a well established medical procedure successfully employed in the treatment of a variety of cancers and other serious diseases. This work was pioneered at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the 1950s through the 1970s and led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, whose work was later recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990. According to the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry, over 45,000 bone marrow and other hematopoietic (blood) stem cell transplant procedures were performed worldwide in 2002.

This has led many researchers to believe that stem cells have tremendous promise in the treatment of diseases other than those currently addressed by stem cell therapies. Researchers have reported progress in the development of new therapies utilizing stem cells for the treatment of cancer, neurological, immunological, genetic, cardiac, pancreatic, liver and degenerative diseases.

The success of current and emerging stem cell therapies is dependent on the presence of a rich and abundant source of stem cells. Umbilical cord blood is a source for one type of stem cell. The practice of cord blood collection has grown information about the potential therapeutic value of stem cells has become more widely known and accepted, following the first successful cord blood transplant performed in 1988.

Whilst cord blood is a rich source of hematopoietic stem cells, it does not contain significant quantities of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). MSCs are multipotent cells (cells that can give rise to diverse cell types in response to appropriate environmental cues). They have been shown to differentiate into bone cells (osteoblasts), fat cells ( adipocytes), liver cells (hepatocytes) and cartilage cells (chondrocytes) as well as muscle cells (myocytes) and nerve cells (neurons). This means they have enormous potential for future therapeutic use.

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