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artist rendering of stem cells

Stem Cells 101

Acorn Biolabs team author
Acorn Biolabs
Team

The origins of life can be difficult to identify, but we all started somewhere. All of us start off as a fertilized egg. We grow from there. First into an immature embryo, and then later into an adult human. Although most of us are oblivious to this, stem cells are one of the main driving forces behind this growth. They divide and differentiate to produce all of our physical structure as we know it. Today, let's find out the role of stem cells in our body and why it is relevant to you!

Stem Cell 101

Stem cells are immature cells in your body that can grow into many other types of cells. Think of stem cells as young “children''; very adaptable, with a lot of potential. Just as we see in human children, they mature into adults gradually. A child becomes an adolescent and then a teen before they become an adult. The same thing goes with stem cells. They gradually mature, step by step, into the fully functioning adult cells in your body. 

The most undeveloped state of stem cells is called totipotent stem cells. They are like a newborn baby with endless potential. A totipotent stem cell can develop into any type of human cell. They came right from a fertilized egg, and they can form an embryo as well as the placenta and other structures outside of the embryo. 

The totipotent stem cells then grew into the more specialized pluripotent stem cells. They are like preschool kids, the possibilities are still seemingly endless, but some things are already determined. A pluripotent stem cell can develop into any tissue in the human body, losing the potential, or potency, of growing into anything outside of an embryo (such as a placenta). 

One step further from Pluripotent stem cells is multipotent stem cells. Multipotent stem cells are the teenagers of stem cells; their interests are visible, and their future is somewhat structured. Multipotent stem cells can develop into any cell type within a family of tissues. An example would be mesenchymal stem cells, or MSCs, which can form anything within a family of tissues from muscle to bone and cartilage

When multipotent stem cells further divide, they become oligopotent and unipotent stem cells. Oligopotent stem cells are your typical college student; they still have a couple of choices for career, but the future is mostly set. Oligopotent stem cells can form 2 or more types of cells within the same tissue. A unipotent stem cell is like a high school grad that decides college isn’t for them. They have decided on what they want to become, as unipotent stem cells form one and only one type of functional adult cell. 

This process in which fertilized eggs mature into different stem cells and eventually adult cells is called differentiation. Through differentiation, stem cells gradually specialize in their form and capabilities until they become fully functional adult cells. 

There is also a special type of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs for short. Essentially iPSCs are adult cells genetically engineered to resemble pluripotent stem cells in function. You can think of them as an adult taken on a time machine, and reverted back to their childhood. In most practical perspectives, you can equate iPSCs with pluripotent stem cells.

Why should I care?

There are actually quite a few reasons why stem cells are relevant to all of us. Firstly, stem cells have the potential to change how we approach healthcare and use medicine. Traditional medicine has always struggled to treat diseases that cause too much damage to our body. Leukemia destroys blood production, Parkinson’s disease kills the neurons and myocardial infarctions ruin the heart muscles. Our bodies cannot cope with the damage caused by these diseases, which is why they are so deadly. Traditional medicine is best equipped to reduce the symptoms, but it doesn’t sufficiently repair the damage done by the diseases. This is why we continue to struggle with Leukemia, Parkinson’s and myocardial infarction. Regenerative medicine using stem cells has the potential to change this, leveraging stem cells to treat the damage caused by disease.

Another reason why stem cells are relevant to all of us is that we must start preparing now in order to take full advantage of stem cell therapies in the future. As we speak, stem cells in our body are aging. Aging causes stem cells to slowly lose their ability to differentiate and self-regenerate, leading to a loss of the regenerative capabilities of our stem cell niches. This loss of differentiating power, or potency, is terrible news for any regenerative treatment. Regenerative therapies depend on this special characteristic of stem cells to repair the damages in your body. If we let our cell age too much, it might just lose the potency required for any treatment. 

Where are the stem cells?

Stem cells are located throughout our body. Each individual organ and tissue has its own niche and variety of stem cells. In adult humans, the most studied source of stem cells include bone marrow, skin, hair follicles and urine. These in addition to common stem cell sources in embryos and placenta and umbilical cord blood from childbirth make up the bulk of studied stem cell niches in humans. 

When we are talking about using stem cells in cell banking or stem cell therapies, each of these sources have its unique utilities and challenges. To begin, embryos as a stem cell source is extremely controversial, basically making its wide range application impossible. Umbilical cord blood and placenta make for a great, non-invasive cell source, though it is limited to immediately after childbirth. This leaves bone marrow, skin, hair follicles and urine as the main cell source in adults. Urine is not well researched enough as of the publication of this article to constitute a serious choice, while bone marrow requires an invasive procedure to extract (usually drilling into the hip). Skin and hair follicle derived stem cells are both great cell sources with huge potential in future applications and are generally considered to be the safest and most favourable cell source. 

Within these cell sources, multiple different stem cell types can be found. The most common and currently most researched are the Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), responsible for blood and immune response related functions, and Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), largely related to skin cells and smooth muscle cells. On top of these, there are also the more specialized Hair follicle stem cells (HFSCs), which are beginning to show serious potential in treating neurodegenerative disease and a variety of different muscle and heart conditions. 

Stem cell research and therapy is an emerging game changer for the general biotech landscape. Stem cells continue to exist in different niches in our body after we reach adulthood, and play a role in maintaining our homeostasis. The recent development of regenerative medicine largely founded on stem cell therapeutics is setting the stage for us to solve some of the most important health problems troubling humanity since our very beginning. And for all of us, our best course of action is to prepare and behold this staggering revolution take place.

How can I leverage the future of regenerative medicine?

There is no better way to prepare for future regenerative medicine than to banking your cells with Acorn. By banking your cells with Acorn, you are ensuring your chances of taking advantage of the future regenerative medicine therapies. With the non-invasive method of stem cell collection from hair follicles, we make stem cell banking easy and painless. Get in touch with us now to bank your stem cells today.