Why Are Stem Cells So Important?

Stem cell research is still very controversial, so why do we want to use stem cells in the first place? Why are they so useful?

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In a study just published in the journal Nature, the researchers used human skin cells, turned them into pluripotent stem cells, and used physical and chemical signals to coax the cells into forming little cardiac microchambers. This breakthrough could be used to help researchers study how the heart grows in an embryo or how drugs might affect a fetus's heart. Looking way into the future, it could mean that scientists could grow a human heart in a lab. Plus, there's no risk of organ rejection since these lab-generated organs are made from the donor's DNA and therefore would always be a perfect match to their body.

Human stem cells were first isolated in 1998 by two independent research teams led by James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and another by John D. Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. These early stem cell lines were derived from early embryos so they were at the center of a lot of controversy. In 2001 adult stem cells were found in fat tissue, and now adult stem cells can be found from almost any tissue. They are tricky and can take a while to coax into growing in a dish, so they're not as easy to use as embryonic stem cells.

In 2007, however, two independent teams of researchers pioneered a process to turn adult somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells in a process called "induced pluripotent stem cells". This discovery, which sidesteps the controversy with embryonic stem cells, holds a lot of promise for stem cell development. Although there are some problems with the process, tons of studies are being done with this new technology and could lead to a cure to a variety of diseases, like blindness and diabetes.

Learn More:

Researchers Grow Tiny Beating Human Hearts From Stem Cells (Popular Science)
"Stem cells, the jack-of-all-trades building blocks of human tissues, have yet another application in biology research: scientists have been able to grow them into beating cardiac tissue."

Key Moments in the Stem-Cell Debate (NPR)
"The first embryonic stem cells were isolated in mice in 1981. But it wasn't until 1998 that researchers managed to derive stem cells from human embryos. That kicked into full gear an ethical debate that continues to this day."

Stem cell timeline: The history of a medical sensation (The New Scientist)
"Stem cells are the cellular putty from which all tissues of the body are made. Ever since human embryonic stem cells were first grown in the lab, researchers have dreamed of using them to repair damaged tissue or create new organs, but such medical uses have also attracted controversy."