What are the potential applications of stem cell research?
Stem cells can be used to study development
Stem cells may help us understand how a complex organism develops from a fertilised egg. In the laboratory, scientists can follow stem cells as they divide and become increasingly specialized, making skin, bone, brain, and other cell types. Identifying the signals and mechanisms that determine whether a stem cell chooses to carry on replicating itself or differentiate into a specialized cell type, and into which cell type, will help us understand what controls normal development.
Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy. This is an important goal of stem cell research.
Stem cells have the ability to replace damaged cells and treat disease:
This property is already used in the treatment of extensive burns, and to restore the blood system in patients with leukaemia and other blood disorders.
Stem cells may also hold the key to replacing cells lost in many other devastating diseases for which there are currently no sustainable cures.
Today, donated tissues and organs are often used to replace damaged tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, if they can be directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson's, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
This prospect is an exciting one, but significant technical hurdles remain that will only be overcome through years of intensive research.
Stem cells could be used to study disease
In many cases it is difficult to obtain the cells that are damaged in a disease, and to study them in detail. Stem cells, either carrying the disease gene or engineered to contain disease genes, offer a viable alternative. Scientists could use stem cells to model disease processes in the laboratory, and better understand what goes wrong.
Stem cells could provide a resource for testing new medical treatments
New medications could be tested for safety on specialized cells generated in large numbers from stem cell lines – reducing the need for animal testing. Other kinds of cell lines are already used in this way. Cancer cell lines, for example, are used to screen potential anti-tumour drugs.