ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Adult or Somatic Stem Cells: Facts and Potential Medical Uses

Updated on August 26, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She often writes about the scientific basis of disease.

A hematopoietic stem cell in the bone marrow is multipotent because it produces multiple types of cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
A hematopoietic stem cell in the bone marrow is multipotent because it produces multiple types of cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. | Source

What Are Adult Stem Cells?

Adult stem cells are unspecialized but very important cells that are found at various sites in our body. Most of our cells are specialized and have specific characteristics to help them do their jobs. They are generally unable to divide. Stem cells divide repeatedly to produce the specialized cells that our body needs in order to repair minor injuries.

Adult stem cells have been found in many places in the body. For example, they've been discovered in the bone marrow, heart, brain, muscles, teeth, and gastrointestinal tract. The list of locations is growing as scientists do more research. Despite their name, the cells are present in both adults and children. Some researchers prefer to call them somatic stem cells.

Scientists are very excited by the potential benefits of adult or somatic stem cells. It may be possible to stimulate them to become more numerous and more active. It may also be possible to trigger them to produce specific target cells. In the future, the stem cells may be useful in the treatment of major problems in the body.

Although most forms of stem cell therapy are not used as medical treatments yet, bone marrow transplants are. Bone marrow contains hematopoietic stem cells. These produce all types of blood cells.

Cell Potency

"Potency" is the ability of an unspecialized stem cell to produce specialized cells. There are four types of potency.

  • Totipotent cells can produce all the cell types in the body as well as extraembryonic tissues, such as those needed to form the placenta. Extraembryonic tissues are needed for the embryo's development but aren't part of its body. The zygote is an example of a totipotent cell. A zygote is produced when an egg joins with a sperm. It's the first cell of a new individual.
  • Pluripotent cells can form any cell type in the body. However, unlike totipotent cells, pluripotent ones can't make extraembyonic tissue. Cells from the early-stage embryo are pluripotent.
  • Multipotent cells can produce several types of specialized cells. For example, stem cells in the bone marrow can make red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Adult stem cells are multipotent.
  • Unipotent cells can produce only one type of specialized cell.

Progenitor and Target Cells

When an adult stem cell divides, it produces either two stem cells or one stem cell and one progenitor cell. The progenitor cell is slightly more specialized than the stem cell and undergoes additional divisions. The cells become more and more differentiated (or specialized) with each division. Eventually, the target cells are produced. The target cells are generally ones needed by the tissue in which the stem cells are located.

Functions of Adult Stem Cells in the Body

The job of adult stem cells is to replace cells that are damaged or have died. These cells include our red blood cells or erythrocytes, which live for only about 120 days, and our white blood cells, which are sometimes killed when fighting bacteria or other microbes. Stem cells in the lining of the small intestine produced the specialized cells needed for digestion and absorption. In the brain, stem cells can produce neurons (nerve cells) as well as the astrocytes and oligodendrocytes that support the neurons. Satellite cells are a type of stem cell in muscles.

The end products of stem cell division are controlled by factors inside the cell as well as by factors outside the cell. Gene expression (the turning on of specific genes), the prevention of gene expression, chemicals produced by other cells, additional chemicals in the cell's surroundings, and physical contact with neighbouring cells can all have an effect on differentiation as cells become more specialized.

Mesenchymal stem cells are found in various tissues. They are multipotent and form bone, cartilage, and fat cells. They may form other types of cells, too, although this is uncertain.

Satellite Cells in Muscles

Stimulating Stem Cell Activity

Under natural conditions, stem cells have a limited ability to repair damage in our bodies. They can't produce an entire organ or body part after we're injured, for example. In addition, they are more numerous or more active in some areas of the body than in others. Still, their potential to replace injured tissue is exciting. It may be possible to stimulate their activity.

Researchers hope to discover the signals that trigger a stem cell to produce specific target cells. Scientists may then be able to produce large numbers of target cells in the laboratory or large numbers of stem cells directed to produce the target cells. The hope is that either the stimulated cells or the unstimulated ones that have multiplied will be able to repair serious damage in a person's body. There have been some clinical successes using stem cell technology, but more research is needed before the technology is widely used.

An exciting discovery is that some adult stem cells exhibit "plasticity". This term means that they can sometimes produce cells of a different tissue from the one in which they are located. This ability may have very useful applications if we can learn to control it. However, forcing the stem cells to make the specialized cells that we require may involve controlling their genes, which raises safety concerns.

Embryonic Stem Cells

In the early stages of stem cell research, stem cells from human embryos were used instead of cells from adults. Embryonic stem cells are still used in some research labs today.

The embryos that supply the stem cells are usually ones that remain after in-vitro fertilization. This is a procedure that helps some couples who have been unable to have children. Donated eggs and sperm are joined in laboratory equipment and then one or more of the resulting embryos are implanted in the woman's uterus. Multiple embryos are produced because the first one (or ones) that are used may not implant in the lining of the uterus successfully. The embryos that are not needed by the couple are frozen and may eventually be used in stem cell research, with the couple's consent.

Embryos are used for research when they have completed about five days of development. At this stage, an embryo is known as a blastocyst. The inner cells of the blastocyst are pluripotent stem cells. Once the embryonic cells are obtained they are allowed to replicate in the laboratory, producing a huge number of stem cells for research as they continue to divide. The fact that the cells are pluripotent makes them especially useful. Since stem cells make more stem cells as they divide, it's unnecessary to continually use new embryos in research.

The blastocyst and its pluripotent stem cells
The blastocyst and its pluripotent stem cells | Source

Controversy and a Problem

The use of embryonic stem cells is controversial, since when the original cells are obtained the intact embryo is destroyed and is unable to develop any further. Some people believe that a new human life begins the moment that a sperm joins with an egg. Another problem is that if cells derived from an embryo are placed inside someone's body, the recipient's immune system may treat the transplanted cells as invaders and destroy them.

A "somatic" cell is a body cell, or one that isn't involved in reproduction, so the word is appropriate in an alternate name for adult stem cells.

Reducing the Controversy

The use of adult stem cells is much less controversial than the use of embryonic ones because the adult cells can be obtained from a donor without destroying human life. If the donor is also the person who needs a transplant of specialized cells or stem cells, the problem of rejection is eliminated, si–nce the person's body won't attack its own cells.

At first it was thought that adult stem cells weren't as valuable as embryonic ones because they are multipotent and not pluripotent. Two possible solutions to this problem exist. Scientists are learning how to direct the multipotency of adult stem cells so that desired cells are produced. In another development, scientists have found a way to theoretically trigger any cell–including specialized ones in our body–to become pluripotent.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Specialized adult cells can be changed into pluripotent ones by controlling which genes are expressed and by altering the chemical environment of the cells. The transformed cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells, iPSCs, or iPS cells. They have a state much like that of an embryonic stem cell. Although any cell in the body could be triggered to become pluripotent, at the moment skin cells are most often used in the process.

iPS cells are not ready to use in humans yet. One problem with the creation of induced pluripotent cells is that viruses are sometimes used to change the genetic programming of the original cells. Viruses are useful in biotechnology because some can add or remove genes from host cell DNA and because some can change the gene expression of the host cell. In tests with animals, the viruses added to cells to reprogram them have sometimes caused cancer in their host. Researchers are trying to find ways to force adult cells to become pluripotent without increasing the risk of cancer development.

Some researchers have found that certain chemicals can trigger pluripotency in cells, which may be a viable alternative to virus use. Transforming adult cells into pluripotent ones safely could have enormous benefits in the field of medicine.

Potential Uses of Stem Cells
Potential Uses of Stem Cells | Source

Additional Benefits of Adult Stem Cells

Even if stem cells and their products aren't used for transplants, they may still be useful. For example, they may be helpful in testing drug action in cells and in studying human development and birth defects. They may also be useful in the study of cancer. In addition, learning how stem cells work may help researchers develop new therapies for illnesses.

Early tests indicate that adult stem cell technology may have important benefits, but many questions about multipotent and induced pluripotent stem cells remain. For example, is it possible to stimulate multipotent cells to produce all of the desirable cells found in different tissues? What are the most efficient methods for making adult cells pluripotent? Are genetically altered stem cells safe?

In 2012, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their discovery that adult cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent cells.

Potential Uses of Stem Cell Technology

Adult stem cell technology appears to be very promising, since in tests it has helped to improve certain symptoms and conditions. However, there is a great deal that researchers don't yet know or understand about stem cells and their actions in our bodies.

Some individuals, organizations, and companies are making wonderful claims about the benefits of stem cell therapy. We need to be cautious when assessing these claims. Once scientists have a better understanding of how stem cells work and of how to control them, we may discover that some of the claims are true. We're not at this stage yet, however.

Researchers hope to be able to help a range of disorders with stem cell technology, including heart disease. A few ailing hearts have been helped by the technology in test procedures. It's hoped that in the future insulin-secreting cells will be produced for implanting into the pancreas of people with Type 1 diabetes. Other diseases which may respond to stem cell therapy include Alzheimer's disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, strokes, spinal cord injuries, and burns.

A Doctor's Warning About Unproven Therapy

Requirements for Successful Therapy

There are many requirements in order for stem cell technology to be successful as a therapeutic treatment.

  • The transplanted cells must be able to survive in the patient's body after the transplant.
  • The cells must be incorporated into the correct tissue or organ.
  • Unspecialized stem cells must divide repeatedly to produce a sufficient number of replacement cells for the patient.
  • The new cells must differentiate into the correct target cells.
  • The cells must remain active in the person's body for a long time.
  • The stem cells mustn't harm the recipient.

If all these requirements are met, some wonderful medical treatments may be available. A lot of researchers are investigating stem cells, either the normal ones in our body, the directed ones, or the induced ones. Hopefully, new and effective ways to treat certain health problems will soon exist.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm so glad that stem cell technology helped you, Stacey. Thanks for sharing your interesting story.

    • StaceyDematos profile image

      Stacey Dematos 

      4 years ago from Buda, TX

      I am a stem cell transplant survivor. I fully support stem cell research. This procedure helped me gain my life back. Dr. Richard K. Burt is doing wonders with stem cell research for Autoimmune Diseases. I suffered from a debilitating autoimmune disease, CIDP, much like MS. I was almost to the point of needing a wheelchair. Today, I am 15 months post transplant an disease free and back to normal. I am running again and riding my bike and walk with no assistance.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, conradofontanilla. Thank you for the votes. This hub is meant to be a basic guide to stem cells for beginners and I don’t want it to become too detailed (such as by referring to mitosis and meiosis). I will add more information about differentiation and potency when I next edit the hub, though. The second diagram does show the cells in their proper sequence based on potency, except as you say, the multipotent cells are omitted.

      Bone marrow stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cord blood are used in mainstream medicine to produce new blood cells, but other stem cell therapies are considered experimental at the moment. Similarly, chelation is used in conventional medicine to treat poisoning by heavy metals but is considered experimental and unproven in other contexts.

      Some of the experimental stem cell treatments are very interesting and are potentially very useful. However, it's extremely important that a patient checks with their regular doctor or doctors if they are considering receiving an unproven therapy in order to learn about any safety concerns. Some alternate health treatments may be useful and may eventually be accepted by mainstream doctors, but other treatments may be not only useless but also dangerous.

      The use of reprogrammed adult stem cells may involve risks. Although these cells may be useful one day they are not ready to use in humans yet.

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      7 years ago from Philippines

      Voted useful and interesting. Some suggestions, though. The differences between meiotic, mitotic and stem cells should be made clearer. Differentiation must be clarified. The term divide must be distinguished from the term differentiate. The phases or stages of differentation should be clarified if they are irreversible, and shown in their proper sequence, like totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, unipotent (if in fact this is the sequence). The diagram does not show multipotent stage.

      Last Dec. 17,2012 I had a talk with Dr. Arturo V. Estuita, MD, a Filipino internist and chelationist who also administers stem cell therapy. He told me of his shop talk with a fellow chelationist whom he visited in Quebec. Canada. He said that oral stem cell therapy triggers the stem cells to produce unipotent cells to replace torn off or worn off or diseased parts of the body. If an earlobe had been torn off stem cell therapy will regrow the earlobe using the original earlobe as scaffold. I have a Hub on this topic. Dr. Estuita said that his clinic has the capability to administer oral stem cell therapy. He said that cirrhosis and liver cancer can be prevented by oral stem cell therapy.

      The technology of reprogramming adult cells into multipotent or unipotent stem cells makes the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary and the ethical issues involved are now remote. In fact, cord blood can now be used in research and used to treat leukemia, among other degenerative diseases.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Sasha! I appreciate your comment, the vote and the share very much.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 

      7 years ago

      Wonderfully informative and enlightening article Alicia! I'm voting and sharing this!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Tom! I appreciate your comment.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Awesome hub and so well written and explained about stem cell research. Well done ! This was a fascinating read !

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, drbj. Yes, the future of stem cell research looks as though it's going to be very exciting - and very important, too. It will be wonderful if diseases such as the ones that you mention are helped by stem cell therapy.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      Exellent article about stem cell research, Alicia. In the future stem cells may help treat and possibly cure many medical problems including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, birth defects, spinal cord injuries, cancer, and even repair damaged organs. It will be exciting to learn what breakthroughs this research may accomplish.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and the votes, Mary. It would certainly be wonderful if stem cell research enabled more diseases to be cured! I hope the technology becomes useful in the near future.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I've never fully understood the role of stem cells. Your Hub has helped me to better understand stem cells. I think it would be wonderful if research provided cures for diseases.

      I voted this Hub UP, etc.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Eddy. I hope that you enjoy your weekend, too!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Interesting and useful ;thanks for sharing and enjoy your weekend.


    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, teaches. I am very hopeful that adult stem cell technology will produce cures for diseases, too. If the safety issues can be addressed, the technology might provide a wonderful breakthrough in our ability to treat some serious illnesses.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      So very, very interesting, Alicia. I am fascinated by the research on this subject and hope that it does lead to new hope and medical solutions for many. Voted up.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)