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‪‪Stem-cell Therapy‬‬ Basics

Updated on May 25, 2017

What Is a Stem Cell?

A stem cell is an undifferentiated biological cell. It can develop into other cells like skin cells, blood cells, etc. An undifferentiated cell is a cell that has not yet acquired a structure and function.

Stem cells usually come from either embryos formed during the blastocyst phase (the second stage of a fertilized egg) of embryological development, or adult tissue.

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Types of Stem Cells

Embryonic stem cells
Mesenchymal stem cells
Tissue-specific stem cells
Induced pluripotent stem cells

Embryonic Stem Cells

These pluripotent stem cells are derived from the undifferentiated inner mass cells of the embryo. They are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that are fertilized in vitro.

Mesenchymal Stem Cells

These multipotent stromal cells can differentiate into many cell types. Mesenchyme is that part of the embryonic mesoderm that contains loosely held, unspecialized cells that are set in a gelatinous ground substance. Connective tissue, bone, cartilage, circulatory system and lymphatic system develop from these cells.

Tissue-Specific Stem Cells

Also known as somatic stem cells, these adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells. They are found all over the body.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

These stem cells can be generated directly from adult cells. They are also known as iPS cells. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese Nobel Prize-winning stem cell research scientist, is the pioneer of the induced pluripotent stem cell technology.

What Is ‪‪Stem-cell Therapy?

Stem-cell therapy is a type of cell therapy in which stem cells are used to treat a medical condition. It is also used or prevent diseases. Bone marrow transplant is the most prevalent stem-cell therapy. The first successful bone marrow transplant was performed in 1968.

Stem cell therapy is a controversial treatment that more and more patients are paying up to $50,000 to receive. Many experts consider it to be the next big hope in medicine, with researchers everywhere investigating the technology’s potential to treat seemingly every ailment known to mankind. This therapy is illegal in many countries.

Uses of Stem-Cell Therapy

According to the California Stem Cell Agency, stem cell therapy can be used to treat many diseases; there is no limit.

To Treat Cardiovascular Diseases

Stem cells taken from adult bone marrow can differentiate into cells required for repairing the heart and the blood vessels. Stem-cell therapy stimulates repair and promotes growth of blood vessel tissue.

To Treat Autism

In this interview, Neil Riordan, PhD, PA, speaks about stem-cell therapy for Autism. Neil is the Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer of the Riordan-McKenna Institute, which offers stem-cell therapy for various medical conditions.

To Treat Neurodegenerative Diseases

Transplanted adult stem cells are used to form neurons, new brain cells, and synapses. Stem-Cell therapy is used to treat various neurodegenerative problems like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

To Treat Orthopedic Injuries

Mesenchymal stem cells are used to treat bone problems. These stem cells differentiate and form orthopedic tissues that make up muscles, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and adipose tissues.


To Treat Diabetes

An innovative method for treating type 1 diabetes based on transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells obtained from the patient's bone marrow started undergoing testing in Brazil more than a decade ago.

The results were variable. While some volunteers were able to stop self-injecting insulin for more than a decade, others had to resume use of the medicine only a few months after receiving the experimental treatment.

One possible explanation for this variation in the outcome for the 25 patients who participated in the research study was presented in an article which was published recently in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

According to the authors, the duration of the therapeutic effect was less in participants whose immune systems had attacked the pancreatic cells aggressively in the pre-transplantation period.

This research study was conducted at the Center for Cell-Based Therapy in Brazil. It was led by Julio Voltarelli, an immunologist, who expired in March 2012. Maria Carolina de Oliveira Rodrigues and Belinda Pinto Simões took over the reins of leadership after Voltarelli's death.

"Because type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, the aim of the treatment is to 'switch off' the immune system temporarily using chemotherapy drugs and 'restart' it by means of the transplantation of autologous hematopoietic stem cells, which can differentiate into every kind of blood cell," Rodrigues explained.

By the time the symptoms of type 1 diabetes begin to show, she added, around 80 percent of the patient's pancreatic islets have already been damaged. If the remaining cells are protected by interrupting autoimmune aggression at this point, the patient can produce insulin, but in small amounts.

"Studies with animals and diabetic humans suggest the percentage of insulin-producing cells declines sharply, reaching almost zero between six and eight weeks after diagnosis. Our center has therefore set a six-week limit for patients to start the transplantation process," said Rodrigues.

25 patients aged between 12 years and 35 years were initially included in the study. The therapeutic effect has lasted an average of 42 months, but ranges overall from 6 months to 12 years, the longest follow-up period so far. 3 patients are completely insulin-free. 1 person has been insulin-free for 10 years, another for 11, and the third for 12.

What Does the Future Hold?

Scientists have formed liver cells from some sources of mesenchymal stem cells but these cells have not been applied clinically yet. They are also working to create stem cells differentiated along the pancreatic line as a possible cure for diabetes, but no line has been well established.


  • A stem cell can develop into other cells.
  • Bone marrow transplant is the most prevalent stem-cell therapy.
  • Many medical conditions can be treated with stem cell therapy.
  • Stem cells can differentiate into cells needed to repair heart and blood vessels.
  • Stem cell therapy is used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat a multitude of diseases and illnesses, which up until now have been labelled 'incurable.

— Peter Jackson


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