What is a stem cell?
Our bodies are made up of billions of cells of many different types that serve many different functions. Each tissue in the body has unique cell characteristics that allows them to function as they do - heart cells make the heart beat, kidney cells filter the blood, and eye cells allow us to see. Each of these specialised cell types originally developed from a stem cell. Stem cells are the building blocks designed for growth and repair. They have two distinctive characteristics distinguishing them from other cell types in the body: firstly, they have the ability to duplicate and create more of themselves and ‘self-renew’; secondly, they possess the ability to evolve or ‘differentiate’ themselves into specific types of cells such as brain, nerve, kidney etc
How do we use stem cells?
Within the last 10-15 years, two landmark discoveries have fundamentally shifted the way biomedical researchers can use stem cells. Firstly, we have discovered how to take adult cells from a patient (usually skin or blood) and turn them back into a stem cell (specifically induced Pluripotent Stem Cells), which we then can differentiate into the tissue type our researchers want to study in the laboratory. Secondly, the development of gene editing technology (called CRISPR/cas9) allows us to take ‘correct’ malfunctioning genes using a patient’s stem cells, and then differentiate into a specific tissues to see the difference corrected genes may make to their tissues and organs. These technologies have significantly improved our understanding of what causes a disease, how a disease may progress in patients, and how to treat or cure it.