Stem cell research has the potential to impact not just one disease, but several. According to the research teams studying these diseases; diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autoimmune disease, burn victims, blood diseases, leukemia, and spinal injuries could all benefit from stem cell research.
All of us are made up of cells. They are the basic unit of life. During pregnancy an embryo develops into a baby by producing many different types of cell such a heart cells, muscle cells, liver cells, brain cells etc. But all these different cells originate from those first few cells of the embryo – the stem cells. At some point in development certain stem cells are programmed to become either muscle, heart or brain etc and this research is trying to understand how that happens i.e. how are certain genes in the cells are switched on to tell it what type of cell it will become.
These early embryo stem cells are called Pluripotent stem cells which means they still have the ability to be programmed to become any type of cell the body needs. These cells are important for that reason because if we can understand how they can be made to develop into a certain kind of cell then we could use them to repair or replace damaged tissue, thereby reversing disease and injury. For example, heart muscle damaged by heart attacks might be replaced by new muscle cells. If we understand the ‘switch’ then we can preserve this ability to become any cell type and grow them in sufficient numbers and use them to produce new organs and tissues as required. This will improve our ability to treat many diseases more effectively, such as diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, leukemia and spinal injuries to name a few.