ZocdocAnswersWhat are stem cells?

Question

What are stem cells?

I'm a paraplegic 25-year-old man. Recently, I keep hearing about how stem cells might someday help people like me, but I don't understand how that could work. What are stem cells?

Answer

Stem cells are the cells that have not taken up the characteristics of functioning tissue, and persist in the body to repair damage or loss of fully differentiated tissues. For example, stem cells in the skin and intestines constantly divide, creating cells that then develop the characteristics of functioning tissues. The stem cell remains unspecialized after dividing. There are many types of stem cells, some of which are more specialized than others. Although the skin and intestinal stem cells described above can only make skin and intestinal lining, each cell in an early embryo is fully capable of developing into any organ if provided the correct signals. It is difficult, however, to figure out the signals to make sure that a cell turns into the correct tissue with the correct structure (i.e. you don't want to inject stem cells into the heart to heal a heart attack, and then have them turn into valves or other non-muscle heart tissues). This is the challenge that scientists are currently working on for spinal cord lesions. If you are interested in learning more about stem cell studies, you should talk with your doctor and see if there are any clinical trials or other new treatments you may benefit from.

This answer is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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