Medically reviewed by
Dr. Nicolette Natale
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
Generally, cells in the body have specific purposes. However, stem cells are undifferentiated cells that do not yet have a particular role. They can turn into specific cells as the body requires them.
Under the right conditions, human stem cells can divide to form more cells, which become either new stem cells or specialized cells like blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle cells, or bone cells.
Stem cells are the only type of cell in the body that has the natural ability to generate new cell types.
Several types of stem cells can be used for different purposes.
Embryonic stem cells are from human embryos that are three to five days old that are harvested during in-vitro fertilization, which involves fertilizing an embryo in a lab instead of the human body. These embryonic cells are known as pluripotent cells.
Non-embryonic (adult) stem cells are a bit of a misnomer. Non-embryonic stem cells are not exclusive to adults; they can also be found in babies and children from already developed organs and tissues. Non-embryonic stem cells are used to repair or replace damaged tissue.
For example, hematopoietic stem cells are a type of adult stem cell found in the bone marrow that can make new red blood cells, white blood cells, and other types of blood cells. Bone marrow transplants have been used to treat certain types of cancer for decades.
Non-embryonic (adult) stem cells cannot become as many other types of cells as embryonic stem cells.
Researchers can reprogram adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which behave like embryonic cells with the ability to differentiate into all types of specialized cells. To create induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists genetically reprogram the adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells.
Cord blood stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord after birth and cryogenically frozen in cell banks for future cell treatments. These cells have been used to successfully treat children with leukemia and certain genetic blood disorders.
Stem cells are also in amniotic fluid, the fluid that surrounds a developing baby inside the pregnant person's womb. More research is still needed to understand the potential uses of amniotic fluid stem cells.
Stem cells are the cells that develop into blood, brain, bones, and all of the body's organs with the potential to repair, restore, replace, and regenerate cells. Stem cells have the possibility to be used to treat many medical conditions and diseases.
Ahead, we look at what stem cells are currently used for and what research is underway.
Stem cells can transform into other types of cells that scientists can use to grow a specific tissue type or organ.
For instance, researchers have been trying to find treatments to stimulate kidney regeneration as kidney disease increases in the population. Stem cells can now replace damaged cells to treat kidney injury and disease.
Similar to platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which can aid in recovery from an injury, stem cells may also be able to promote the healing of damaged tissue and organs.
In one study, researchers isolated a type of collagen-producing skin cell from hair follicles, replicated them, and injected them at the injury site using ultrasound imaging. These cells can then generate new tissue where it is needed.
Researchers are also investigating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with promising results. Remember, these cells can become any type of cell in the body, so they can be programmed to behave like tendon cells, called tenocytes. One mice study shows that these cells transplanted into mice significantly improve the regeneration of damaged tendons.
Mesenchymal stem cells also show promise in repairing damaged tissue and organs. One study shows patients with knee osteoarthritis saw improvement in cartilage quality after being treated with intra-articular injections of MSCs.
As we've explored, there are many different types of stem cells, some of which can be used to promote anti-aging for the skin.
In one study, researchers used a topical treatment of stem cells derived from cord blood on a group of women ages 18 to 55 years old. After four weeks of treatment, results showed the skin density increased, and wrinkles in the eye area were reduced, with no adverse reactions.
Similarly, two separate mice studies found that wrinkles were reduced and collagen increased after injecting the mice with adipose-derived stem cells (ADSCs), suggesting that ADSCs can induce skin cells to produce more collagen, the protein that supports the epidermis.
For hair, regenerative therapy may help male pattern baldness by injecting hair follicle stem cells into the balding regions. One study finds that injecting the patient's hair follicle stem cells into the balding site can increase hair density by roughly 30%.
Adult hematopoietic stem cells can treat blood diseases like leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and other immunodeficiency problems to replace cells that have been damaged by the disease.
Hematopoietic stem cells occur in blood and bone marrow. They can produce all blood cell types, including red blood cells that carry oxygen and white blood cells that fight disease.
Researchers are researching using stem cells to treat brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
For example, there is currently no cure for Parkinson's disease. This disease causes a person to progressively lose their cognitive ability. Now, treatments for Parkinson's disease focus on symptoms. However, research shows promising use of regenerative therapies that tackle the root cause of Parkinson's disease to regenerate the neurons lost in the progression of the disease using human induced pluripotent stem cells.
Similarly, regenerative medicine shows promise in the search for a treatment that can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and reverse its effects. In animal studies, researchers have been able to transplant neural stem cells into mice, improving memory function. This shows a ton of promise for creating healthy brain cells and using them to repair the damage done by Alzheimer's.
Reparative stem cells can restore function to tissue damaged by heart disease.
There is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis (MS), an inflammatory disease that involves the central nervous system. Now, treatments for MS focus on symptom management. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can be used to help repair neurological damage and improve brain cell health. Stem cells also help control unusual immune system activity, which plays a significant role in MS.
Diabetes is a group of diseases that result in too much sugar in the blood. Stem cells may help replace missing or damaged beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
Early studies demonstrate the safety of using mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood in children with cerebral palsy. An infusion of cells from a child's umbilical cord blood improves motor function and brain connectivity in children with spastic cerebral palsy.
While an enormous amount of research is being done, few new effective treatments are still available to patients. Treatments must successfully pass the stages of clinical trials required to demonstrate safety and clinical benefit before they can be approved for widespread use.
Suppose you're considering a stem cell treatment. In that case, we recommend that you make sure it is either FDA-approved or studied under an Investigational New Drug Application (a clinical investigation plan submitted and allowed to proceed by the FDA).
There are over 1,000 clinical trials focused on regenerative medicine, making it clear that the frontier of medicine is cell-based. Cord blood banking is a meaningful way to guarantee that your baby has access to their best possible cells whenever they need them in the future.