A stem cell is a special type of cell found in the human body. Stem cells have the ability to divide and produce identical non-specialized cells or through a process known as differentiation they can develop into cells that specialize in specific functions, such as brain cells.
Some specialized stem cells, such as those in the muscles, divide on a regular basis to repair or replace tissue damaged through injury, disease or normal use. While others, such as those of the heart, only divide under specific circumstances. Researchers are interested in the stem cells present in human embryos; adult or somatic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, which are adult stem cells reprogrammed to take on any of the functions of the 200 cell types found in the body.
With scientists, doctors and industry worldwide working on various facets of stem cell research, the potential to improve human life and health is enormous. One important area of research focuses on the processes involved in normal healthy cell development, which is useful for understanding cancer, a disease of abnormal cell growth. The Swedish company Biolamina focuses on the production and distribution of reagents to culture cells for cellular therapies. Stem cells offer the possibility of a cure for illnesses, such as insulin-dependent diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
The UK is a recognized leader in stem cell research with supportive government policies and public and private funding arrangements. Established under the 2005 Stem Cell Initiative, the UK Stem Cell Bank acts as a repository and provides ethically sourced human embryonic and other stem cells for treatment and research purposes to scientists in the UK and other countries. Stem cells from the Bank also have a possible use in the production of pharmaceuticals and medicines.
In the US, researchers during a clinical trial at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute injected retinal cells produced from human embryonic stem cells into the eyes of two patients with either Stargardt’s macular dystrophy or dry age-related macular degeneration. The results published during 2012 in the Lancet show that the vision of both patients has improved slightly. This represents a big step forward in stem cell research.
Unfortunately, not all research produces excellent results. Recently, scientists at Japan’s Riken Institute claimed to have found an easy way to reprogramme adult stem cells into pluripotent cells. They named the process STAP or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. According to the New York Times on July 2 2014, other scientists were unable to reproduce the results.