Stem cells are a type of biological cells that are found in the higher animals. They are undifferentiated and can undergo specialisation to produce cells that are adapted for specific functions in the body. Their uniqueness lies in the fact that these cells can self- renew and make copies of themselves, and they can also differentiate and give rise to specialised cells. The stem cells could either be embryonic in origin (derived from the blastocysts), or they could be adult cells, found in various body tissues. In adults, they repair and renew the body by giving rise to new tissues. When found in developing embryos, they develop into specialised cells such as the endoderm and ectoderm; and they also maintain organs such as blood and skin, which are regenerative.
Recent research has focused on the characteristics and isolation of stem cells due to their properties (self- renewal and ability to differentiate). They have the potential to be used in medical therapy to either treat or prevent certain diseases and conditions. For instance, they are used when carrying out bone marrow transplants, and research is underway on their use in treating diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, among others. For research to be successful, it is important to know their characteristics and how they can be used in medicine. It is also important that they are isolated before they can be applied in therapy.
Stem cells are different and unique from all other body cells. One of their properties is that they can divide and renew themselves for a long time without differentiating (Rotter et al. 2008). According to Shahriyari and Komarova (2013), two processes are responsible for this. They can undergo asymmetric division to give rise to a stem and a non- stem cell. Symmetric division, which gives rise to either specialised or unspecialised stem cells can also take place. Self- renewal is an important property since it provides a continuous supply of the cells that are used throughout life. Research is currently underway to identify the factors that regulate proliferation and renewal in the stem cells.
Another unique characteristic of the cells is that they are unspecialized. They do not have any structures that will allow them to perform any specialised functions, which only occurs after differentiation. They can, however, give rise to specialised cells, such as skin or red blood cells. These cells cannot undergo mitosis to make copies when they are worn out or damaged. They soon become used up in the body and differentiation of stem cells is necessary to replace them and to keep the body functioning (Rotter et al. 2008). Internal signals (such as genes), and external signals (chemicals, molecules) are responsible for initiating the differentiation process. There is a need for more research to be carried out on the mechanisms that are responsible for their differentiation if stem cells are to be used in therapy. Understanding the signals responsible differentiation will be useful in growing cells and tissues that can be utilised for a particular purpose.
Stem cells could either be embryonic or adult cells. Embryonic cells are found in the blastocyst of embryos. These cells have the ability to give rise to any cell in the body and come up with an entirely viable individual. Adult stem cells are found in specialised tissues and organs. This cell can renew itself and to give rise to the cells unique to the particular tissue or organ. They repair and maintain the tissues in which they are found (Rotter et al. 2008).
The isolation of embryonic stem cells has presented many ethical challenges (Rotter et al. 2008). Such cells are thus derived from embryos fertilised in- vitro in the laboratory, and not from a woman’s body. Cells are harvested from a blastocyst 4- 5 days after fertilisation and they are transferred into a culture dish with nutrient medium. Most of the cells do not adapt to the culture, and do not survive. Those that survive will multiply rapidly in the medium. The dish is specially treated so that the stem cells will not continue dividing to give rise to differentiated cells. Once the cells multiply, they are removed and transferred into different plates. They undergo characterization to determine whether they exhibit the properties of the stem cells. Once this has been confirmed, they can now be used in experiments.
Adult (somatic) cells can be isolated from most organs and tissues in the body such as the brain, bone marrow, skin and blood, among others (Rotter et al. 2008). Their isolation is dependent on their type. For instance, some cells, such as those from the heart are rare, and only few can be isolated while those from blood are numerous and can be regularly isolated. Tissues have regions known as ‘stem cell niches’, occupied by the cells from which they can be isolated. They are few in the tissues, and their ability to divide is difficult.
Different protocols are used in the lab to culture stem cells, depending on the type and whether or not they are to be differentiated. Some of these methods as mentioned by Huang et al. (2015) include the positive and negative selection method; the enzymatic digestion approach and the frequent medium changes technique, among others. A culture dish with media that supports the growth of the cells and inhibits their differentiation is used. The medium has growth factors and molecules that encourage the cells to grow and multiply. Once they multiply, they undergo screening for gene expression among other tests that are used to confirm their identity. Once they are confirmed, they are preserved for future use.
The study of stem cells is a fascinating and rapidly growing field. They are found in the blastocyst, in the initial stages of an embryo (embryo stem cells) or the tissues of a fetus, a child or an adult (adult stem cells). Those from the embryo can differentiate into any cell while those found in the adults give rise to cells similar to those in the tissue in which they are located. These cells are thought to have the potential to treat and control life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, among others. This is due to their properties which can be used applied in medical science. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can undergo differentiation to make them specialised. The mechanism controlling this is not completely understood, but it is necessary to replenish the body cells that are being worn out continuously. The ability of the cells to undergo self- renewal is also important since it provides a constant supply of the cells in particular organs and tissues. For these cells to be useful in medicine, scientists should have an understanding of their characteristics and how they can be isolated.
Rotter, N, Oder, J, Schlenke, P, Lindner, U, Bohrnsen, F, Kramer, J e. al. 2008, ‘Isolation and Characterization of Adult Stem Cells from Human Salivary Glands’, Stem Cells and Development, 17, pp 509- 518.
Shahriyari, L & Komarova NL 2013, ‘Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Stem Cell Divisions: An Adaptation against Cancer?’ PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, pp e76195.
Shuo, H, Liangliang, X, Yuxin, S, Tianyi, W, Kuixing, W & Gang, L 2015, ‘An Improved Protocol for Isolation and Culture of Mesenchymal Stem Cells from Mouse Bone Marrow, Journal of Orthopaedic Translation, vol. 3, no. 1, pp 26-33.
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