Have you ever heard of stem cells? Maybe you have heard of stem cells but aren’t quite sure what they are, what they do, and how stem cell donors can save someone’s life.
This is the second blog post of a new series about the need for stem cell donations – particularly from members of minority populations. In this post, you will learn more of the basic facts about stem cells. In future posts, we’ll be talking about why there’s a need for donors, what is involved in donating, and how to register to become a donor.
By the end of the stem cell blog series, you will be able to tell your friends and family about stem cells, what it means to be a donor, the facts about stem cell donation, and what to expect as a donor.
In the previous post, we introduced the stem cells series and discussed why it is important among the African American population.
What are stem cells?
Each of our bodies are made up of millions of cells that are constantly dividing and replenishing. Most of these cells are differentiated, which means that they are specialized for one type of tissue: heart cells, liver cells, blood cells, etc. Every time a differentiated cell divides, it makes two new cells that belong to the same tissue.
Stem cells are different because they’re undifferentiated: they have the potential to become more than one kind of specialized cell. When a stem cell divides, it might divide into two new stem cells. But it could also make one new stem cell and one new differentiated cell.
There are also different kinds of stem cells; including embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent stem cells which means they can divide into more stem cells or any type of cell in the body. Unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are limited in ability and can only become certain types of cells in the body. For example, donated adults stem cells from peripheral blood can develop into different types of blood cells.
But I’m an adult. How can I donate stem cells?
Most of the cells in an adult have differentiated into their final cell types. An important exception is hematopoietic stem cells. These cells can become any of the different kinds of blood cells: white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Each of these cell types has a very important (and different) job: the white blood cells fight infections, the red blood cells carry oxygen around the body, and the platelets help create clots to stop bleeding.
Why would patients need stem cells?
Sometimes hematopoietic stem cells are diseased. This can mean that they produce too much of one type of blood cell or too little of another. Patients with some immune-deficiency syndromes cannot make enough white blood cells to fight off infections. Patients with leukemia, on the other hand, have cancer in their white blood cells. Sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and aplastic anemia are all caused by problems with making red blood cells.
Other times, the hematopoietic stem cells become damaged in the treatment for another disease. For instance, both chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer can damage a lot of these cells.
In either case, these patients cannot produce enough healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets to be healthy. A stem cell transplant will give the patient healthy hematopoietic stem cells, so that their body can replenish the blood with the right kinds of cells.
I hear there’s a lot of controversy about stem cells. What’s that about?
There are questions and issues that have been raised about the ethics of using embryonic stem cells for research.
Embryonic stem cells are from early-stage embryos (3-5 days old). The embryos are from an in vitro fertilization clinic (where they combine the egg and sperm outside of the human body in a lab). These stem cells are donated by families who provide permission for the use of their embryos once they have met their family planning goals.
This research is used to increase the understanding of: how disease occurs, how to generate healthy cells to replace diseased cells, and to ensure the safety and effectiveness of new drugs. In addition, doctors are hopeful that in the future, we can use our understanding of embryonic stem cells to grow new organs that we can transplant into sick patients.
In the next blog in this series, we will talk about the myths about stem cells and set the record straight.