Stem cells are truly wondrous. They are found throughout our bodies, from the intestines to the heart – and even in bones. However, the truth about these amazing, multi-potential cells is often mingled with political debate, which often irritates rather than educates. Because of this, there is much confusion about what stem cells really are and where they really come from.
The first thing to understand is that stem cells are undifferentiated cells with special capabilities, which includes producing more stem cells through cell division. Under certain conditions they can become tissue or organ-specific cells that can serve in various capacities or communicate with other cells for specific outcomes. Due to their regenerative abilities, scientists study stem cells to find treatments for diabetes, heart disease, and a myriad other illnesses. Ongoing research into stem cells allows scientists to expand their understanding of how organisms develop and how a handful of tiny cells can become a complex being.
One of the common misconceptions about stem cells is that they all come from fetuses. While this is partially true, there are several other sources of stem cells, including the umbilical cord, bone marrow, and fat tissue. There are two categories of stem cells: embryonic, derived from an embryo, and non-embryonic, which are taken from grown individuals. Another misconception is that the cells used in research could have matured and become fully developed babies. The embryonic cells used for research come from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization and are not fertilized inside the womb. They come from blastocysts, a fleeting cell that would otherwise disappear.
Research continues with both embryonic and adult stem cells, but successful stem cell therapy for common diseases and common people have mainly been carried out using adult stem cells. In fact, about 70 diseases, from cancer to heart disease, have been successfully treated with adult stem cells. Another myth worth debunking is that scientists are using stem cells to clone humans. Again, this is not true and should be left to Hollywood.