Stem Cell FAQs

Regenerative medicine is an exciting frontier in science and medicine. The goal is to apply our knowledge of how the systems in our body are generated, maintained and repaired to develop new therapies. Research in this area has revolutionized our understanding of human biology and will lead to new clinical applications.

The following key questions and answers shed light on this research and why it holds so much potential.

What is regenerative medicine?

Regenerative medicine is a scientific and medical field focused on restoring structure and function of damaged tissues and organs. The field encompasses medical devices and artificial organs, tissue engineering (the creation of new tissue), cellular therapies (introducing new cells into a tissue in order to treat a disease) and clinical translation (bringing lab breakthroughs to patient treatment). Stem cell research is a central part of this field.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are primitive, unspecialized cells with two key properties: self-renewal (or the ability to divide and give rise to new stem cells) and the ability to undergo specialization or differentiation into the functional cells that make up tissues of the body.

Why is stem cell research important?

Stems cells play a critical role in replenishing the cells of our body. More than a billion red blood cells are produced daily from stem cells in the bone marrow. Other types of stem cells replenish and repair other tissues. In contrast to adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells have the potential to form any cell in the human body under the right conditions. Stem cells are thus a window into the normal development of cells, and the normal processes that maintain healthy organ systems. Increasing evidence links abnormal stem cells to a variety of cancers where rare and elusive cancer stem cells propagate the tumor.

With stem cells, scientists have access to an essentially unlimited supply of specific cell types for basic research and transplantation therapies designed to one day treat a wide spectrum of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Stem cells’ regenerative capabilities also point to the distinct possibility of employing replacement cells to repair damaged skin, heart muscles, livers, lungs and retinas. There is even the possibility to reprogram adult tissue to generate cells with all the capabilities of embryonic stem cells. These induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) can be generated from patients with a disease, and differentiated to the diseased cell type.

What other scientific discoveries can happen from human embryonic stem cell research?

Apart from their potential to provide new tissues for transplantation therapy, stem cells are powerful research tools.

Embryonic stem cells enable us to study early human development, and to understand the origins of birth defects and childhood cancers. Adult stem cells tell us about the normal tissue repair processes. Induced pluripotent stem cells allow researchers to model disease in a lab — and to study the causes and design new treatments. We can use stem cell cultures to study human gene function. We know what the human genome contains, but in many cases, we do not know how the genes function. Human stem cells allow us to study human gene function.

Finally, with the ability to generate an essentially unlimited supply of any cell type, we can use stem cell culture to engineer tissues, develop new medicines and study their effects in culture models of human disease.