While advances in the realm of stem cell research and therapy has been the source of much hype within the medical arena over the past decade, what does this actually mean for ordinary parents and people suffering from diseases that have the potential to be treated with stem cell therapies?
The body’s master cells
In their simplest form, stem cells can be regarded as the body’s master cells, from which all the various types of blood cells and other body organ tissues such as bone, muscle, heart, liver, kidney, neuro, eye, skin, etc. are derived. In other words, they have the ability to grow into any one of the body’s more than 200 cell types.
A stem cell can divide to produce a carbon copy of itself or it can differentiate into more specialised cells. Their ability to divide throughout life and differentiate to produce new specialised cells, means that stem cells function much like a natural reservoir that contributes to the body’s ability to renew and repair its tissues.
In the human brain, for instance, there are rare neural stem cells. Stem cells have the ability to divide into more neural stem cells or, under the appropriate conditions, differentiate into other specialised types of cells to replace old or damaged tissue in the brain.
The benefits of umbilical cord blood and tissue
Stem cells are found in bone marrow, umbilical cord and placenta blood, umbilical cord and placenta tissues, adult peripheral blood and other body tissues.
Umbilical cord blood is taken from a new-born’s umbilical cord and placenta immediately following birth – a painless, risk-free procedure. Cord blood contains a high concentration of stem cells, and recent studies have shown it provides unique advantages over traditional bone-marrow transplantation. The most significant advantage is that the donor cord blood stem cells do not have to match 100% to the recipient’s tissue, making finding a suitable match easier.
Cord blood can be used for the baby, the brothers and sisters and the mom and dad with a suitably matching tissue type, and in these instances cord blood stem cell transplants can in fact prove life-saving.
Much like cord blood, umbilical cord tissue can also be collected and stored in a stem cell bank. Cord tissue Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are younger and considered a superior resource when compared to bone marrow MSCs as they are younger and subsequently, they have greater differentiation potential and faster rates of division.
Treatments and applications
The fact that stem cells can continuously produce copies of themselves as well as other more specialised cell types makes them unique and this is why they provide nearly limitless potential for medical treatments and applications.
Cord blood stem cell transplants have already changed—and saved—thousands of lives around the world. They are used to treat more than 75 diseases, including numerous types of malignancies, anaemia’s, inherited metabolic disorders and deficiencies of the immune system.
Current studies are researching how stem cells may be used to prevent or cure diseases and injuries such as Parkinson’s disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, spinal cord injury, Duchene’s muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, burns, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, vision, and hearing loss. Stem cells could also be used someday to replace or repair tissue damaged by disease or injury.
The fact that cord tissue stem cells could become a vital component to the future treatment of many diseases, certainly presents a compelling case to enrol at a stem cell bank.