Stem cells are undifferentiated biological cells that can differentiate into specialized cells and can divide (through mitosis) to produce more stem cells. They are found in multicellular organisms. In mammals, there are two broad types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, which are isolated from the inner cell mass of blastocysts, and adult stem cells, which are found in various tissues. In adult organisms, stem cells and progenitor cells act as a repair system for the body, replenishing adult tissues. In a developing embryo, stem cells can differentiate into all the specialized cells—ectoderm, endoderm and mesoderm (see induced pluripotent stem cells)—but also maintain the normal turnover of regenerative organs, such as blood, skin, or intestinal tissues.
There are three known accessible sources of autologous adult stem cells in humans:
- Bone marrow, which requires extraction by harvesting, that is, drilling into bone (typically the femur or iliac crest).
- Adipose tissue (lipid cells), which requires extraction by liposuction.
- Blood, which requires extraction through apheresis, wherein blood is drawn from the donor (similar to a blood donation), and passed through a machine that extracts the stem cells and returns other portions of the blood to the donor.
Stem cells can also be taken from umbilical cord blood just after birth. Of all stem cell types, autologous harvesting involves the least risk. By definition, autologous cells are obtained from one's own body, just as one may bank his or her own blood for elective surgical procedures.
Adult stem cells are frequently used in medical therapies, for example in bone marrow transplantation. Stem cells can now be artificially grown and transformed (differentiated) into specialized cell types with characteristics consistent with cells of various tissues such as muscles or nerves. Embryonic cell lines and autologous embryonic stem cells generated through Somatic-cell nuclear transfer or dedifferentiation have also been proposed as promising candidates for future therapies. Research into stem cells grew out of findings by Ernest A. McCulloch and James E. Till at the University of Toronto in the 1960s.
The classical definition of a stem cell requires that it possess two properties:
- Self-renewal: the ability to go through numerous cycles of cell division while maintaining the undifferentiated state.
- Potency: the capacity to differentiate into specialized cell types. In the strictest sense, this requires stem cells to be either totipotent or pluripotent—to be able to give rise to any mature cell type, although multipotent or unipotent progenitor cells are sometimes referred to as stem cells. Apart from this it is said that stem cell function is regulated in a feed back mechanism.
Two mechanisms exist to ensure that a stem cell population is maintained:
- Obligatory asymmetric replication: a stem cell divides into one mother cell that is identical to the original stem cell, and another daughter cell that is differentiated.
- Stochastic differentiation: when one stem cell develops into two differentiated daughter cells, another stem cell undergoes mitosis and produces two stem cells identical to the original.
Potency specifies the differentiation potential (the potential to differentiate into different cell types) of the stem cell.
- Totipotent (a.k.a. omnipotent) stem cells can differentiate into embryonic and extraembryonic cell types. Such cells can construct a complete, viable organism. These cells are produced from the fusion of an egg and sperm cell. Cells produced by the first few divisions of the fertilized egg are also totipotent.
- Pluripotent stem cells are the descendants of totipotent cells and can differentiate into nearly all cells, i.e. cells derived from any of the three germ layers.
- Multipotent stem cells can differentiate into a number of cell types, but only those of a closely related family of cells.
- Oligopotent stem cells can differentiate into only a few cell types, such as lymphoid or myeloid stem cells.
- Unipotent cells can produce only one cell type, their own, but have the property of self-renewal, which distinguishes them from non-stem cells (e.g. progenitor cells, muscle stem cells).
In practice, stem cells are identified by whether they can regenerate tissue. For example, the defining test for bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) is the ability to transplant the cells and save an individual without HSCs. This demonstrates that the cells can produce new blood cells over a long term. It should also be possible to isolate stem cells from the transplanted individual, which can themselves be transplanted into another individual without HSCs, demonstrating that the stem cell was able to self-renew.
Properties of stem cells can be illustrated in vitro, using methods such as clonogenic assays, in which single cells are assessed for their ability to differentiate and self-renew. Stem cells can also be isolated by their possession of a distinctive set of cell surface markers. However, in vitro culture conditions can alter the behavior of cells, making it unclear whether the cells will behave in a similar manner in vivo. There is considerable debate as to whether some proposed adult cell populations are truly stem cells.
Embryonic stem (ES) cells are stem cells derived from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, an early-stage embryo. Human embryos reach the blastocyst stage 4–5 days post fertilization, at which time they consist of 50–150 cells. ES cells are pluripotent and give rise during development to all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm and mesoderm. In other words, they can develop into each of the more than 200 cell types of the adult body when given sufficient and necessary stimulation for a specific cell type. They do not contribute to the extra-embryonic membranes or the placenta.
Nearly all research to date has made use of mouse embryonic stem cells (mES) or human embryonic stem cells (hES). Both have the essential stem cell characteristics, yet they require very different environments in order to maintain an undifferentiated state. Mouse ES cells are grown on a layer of gelatin as an extracellular matrix (for support) and require the presence of leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF). Human ES cells are grown on a feeder layer of mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) and require the presence of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF or FGF-2). Without optimal culture conditions or genetic manipulation, embryonic stem cells will rapidly differentiate.
A human embryonic stem cell is also defined by the expression of several transcription factors and cell surface proteins. The transcription factors Oct-4, Nanog, and Sox2 form the core regulatory network that ensures the suppression of genes that lead to differentiation and the maintenance of pluripotency. The cell surface antigens most commonly used to identify hES cells are the glycolipids stage specific embryonic antigen 3 and 4 and the keratan sulfate antigens Tra-1-60 and Tra-1-81. The molecular definition of a stem cell includes many more proteins and continues to be a topic of research.
There are currently no approved treatments using embryonic stem cells. The first human trial was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in January 2009. However, the human trial was not initiated until October 13, 2010 in Atlanta for spinal injury victims. On November 14, 2011 the company conducting the trial announced that it will discontinue further development of its stem cell programs. ES cells, being pluripotent cells, require specific signals for correct differentiation—if injected directly into another body, ES cells will differentiate into many different types of cells, causing a teratoma. Differentiating ES cells into usable cells while avoiding transplant rejection are just a few of the hurdles that embryonic stem cell researchers still face. Many nations currently have moratoria on either ES cell research or the production of new ES cell lines. Because of their combined abilities of unlimited expansion and pluripotency, embryonic stem cells remain a theoretically potential source for regenerative medicine and tissue replacement after injury or disease.
The primitive stem cells located in the organs of fetuses are referred to as fetal stem cells. There are two types of fetal stem cells:
- Fetal proper stem cells come from the tissue of the fetus proper, and are generally obtained after an abortion. These stem cells are not immortal but have a high level of division and are multipotent.
- Extraembryonic fetal stem cells come from extraembryonic membranes, and are generally not distinguished from adult stem cells. These stem cells are acquired after birth, they are not immortal but have a high level of cell division, and are pluripotent.
Adult stem cells, also called somatic (from Greek σωματικóς, "of the body") stem cells, are stem cells which maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. They can be found in children, as well as adults.
Pluripotent adult stem cells are rare and generally small in number, but they can be found in umbilical cord blood and other tissues. Bone marrow is a rich source of adult stem cells, which have been used in treating several conditions including spinal cord injury, liver cirrhosis, chronic limb ischemia  and endstage heart failure. The quantity of bone marrow stem cells declines with age and is greater in males than females during reproductive years. Much adult stem cell research to date has aimed to characterize their potency and self-renewal capabilities. DNA damage accumulates with age in both stem cells and the cells that comprise the stem cell environment. This accumulation is considered to be responsible, at least in part, for increasing stem cell dysfunction with aging (see DNA damage theory of aging).
Most adult stem cells are lineage-restricted (multipotent) and are generally referred to by their tissue origin (mesenchymal stem cell, adipose-derived stem cell, endothelial stem cell, dental pulp stem cell, etc.).
Adult stem cell treatments have been successfully used for many years to treat leukemia and related bone/blood cancers through bone marrow transplants. Adult stem cells are also used in veterinary medicine to treat tendon and ligament injuries in horses.
The use of adult stem cells in research and therapy is not as controversial as the use of embryonic stem cells, because the production of adult stem cells does not require the destruction of an embryo. Additionally, in instances where adult stem cells are obtained from the intended recipient (an autograft), the risk of rejection is essentially non-existent. Consequently, more US government funding is being provided for adult stem cell research.
Multipotent stem cells are also found in amniotic fluid. These stem cells are very active, expand extensively without feeders and are not tumorigenic. Amniotic stem cells are multipotent and can differentiate in cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, hepatic and also neuronal lines. Amniotic stem cells are a topic of active research.
Use of stem cells from amniotic fluid overcomes the ethical objections to using human embryos as a source of cells. Roman Catholic teaching forbids the use of embryonic stem cells in experimentation; accordingly, the Vatican newspaper "Osservatore Romano" called amniotic stem cells "the future of medicine".
It is possible to collect amniotic stem cells for donors or for autologuous use: the first US amniotic stem cells bank  was opened in 2009 in Medford, MA, by Biocell Center Corporation and collaborates with various hospitals and universities all over the world.
These are not adult stem cells, but rather adult cells (e.g. epithelial cells) reprogrammed to give rise to pluripotent capabilities. Using genetic reprogramming with protein transcription factors, pluripotent stem cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells have been derived from human adult skin tissue. Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University used the transcription factors Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc, and Klf4 in their experiments on cells from human faces. Junying Yu, James Thomson, and their colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison used a different set of factors, Oct4, Sox2, Nanog and Lin28, and carried out their experiments using cells from human foreskin. Recently, RNA-based reprogramming was shown to induce pluripotent stem cells from chondrocytes, indicating that iPSCs can be derived without making any alterations to a genome.
As a result of the success of these experiments, Ian Wilmut, who helped create the first cloned animal Dolly the Sheep, has announced that he will abandon somatic cell nuclear transfer as an avenue of research.
Frozen blood samples can be used as a source of induced pluripotent stem cells, opening a new avenue for obtaining the valued cells.
To ensure self-renewal, stem cells undergo two types of cell division (see Stem cell division and differentiation diagram). Symmetric division gives rise to two identical daughter cells both endowed with stem cell properties. Asymmetric division, on the other hand, produces only one stem cell and a progenitor cell with limited self-renewal potential. Progenitors can go through several rounds of cell division before terminally differentiating into a mature cell. It is possible that the molecular distinction between symmetric and asymmetric divisions lies in differential segregation of cell membrane proteins (such as receptors) between the daughter cells.
An alternative theory is that stem cells remain undifferentiated due to environmental cues in their particular niche. Stem cells differentiate when they leave that niche or no longer receive those signals. Studies in Drosophila germarium have identified the signals decapentaplegic and adherens junctions that prevent germarium stem cells from differentiating.
Diseases and conditions where stem cell treatment is being investigated include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer's disease
- Stroke and traumatic brain injury repair
- Learning disability due to congenital disorder 
- Spinal cord injury repair 
- Heart infarction 
- Anti-cancer treatments 
- Baldness reversal
- Replace missing teeth 
- Repair hearing 
- Restore vision  and repair damage to the cornea
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 
- Crohn's disease 
- Wound healing 
Stem cell therapy is the use of stem cells to treat or prevent a disease or condition. Bone marrow transplant is a crude form of stem cell therapy that has been used clinically for many years without controversy. No stem cell therapies other than bone marrow transplant are widely used.
In more recent years, with the ability of scientists to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, and with scientists' growing ability to create stem cells using somatic cell nuclear transfer and techniques to created induced pluripotent stem cells, controversy has crept in, both related to abortion politics and to human cloning.
Stem cell treatments may require immunosuppression because of a requirement for radiation before the transplant to remove the patient's previous cells, or because the patient's immune system may target the stem cells. One approach to avoid the second possibility is to use stem cells from the same patient who is being treated.
Pluripotency in certain stem cells could also make it difficult to obtain a specific cell type. It is also difficult to obtain the exact cell type needed, because not all cells in a population differentiate uniformly. Undifferentiated cells can create tissues other than desired types.
Some stem cells form tumors after transplantation; pluripotency is linked to tumor formation especially in embryonic stem cells, fetal proper stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells. Fetal proper stem cells form tumors despite multipotency.
Hepatotoxicity and drug-induced liver injury account for a substantial number of failures of new drugs in development and market withdrawal, highlighting the need for screening assays such as stem cell-derived hepatocyte-like cells, that are capable of detecting toxicity early in the drug development process.
Some of the fundamental patents covering human embryonic stem cells are owned by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) - they are patents 5,843,780, 6,200,806, and 7,029,913 invented by James A. Thomson. WARF does not enforce these patents against academic scientists, but does enforce them against companies.
In 2006, a request for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to re-examine the three patents was filed by the Public Patent Foundation on behalf of its client, the non-profit patent-watchdog group Consumer Watchdog (formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights). In the re-examination process, which involves several rounds of discussion between the USTPO and the parties, the USPTO initially agreed with Consumer Watchdog and rejected all the claims in all three patents, however in response, WARF amended the claims of all three patents to make them more narrow, and in 2008 the USPTO found the amended claims in all three patents to be patentable. The decision on one of the patents (7,029,913) was appealable, while the decisions on the other two were not. Consumer Watchdog appealed the granting of the '913 patent to the USTPO's Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI) which granted the appeal, and in 2010 the BPAI decided that the amended claims of the '913 patent were not patentable. However, WARF was able to re-open prosecution of the case and did so, amending the claims of the '913 patent again to make them more narrow, and in January 2013 the amended claims were allowed.
In July 2013, Consumer Watchdog announced that it would appeal the decision to allow the claims of the '913 patent to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC), the federal appeals court that hears patent cases. At a hearing in December 2013, the CAFC raised the question of whether Consumer Watchdog had legal standing to appeal; the case could not proceed until that issue was resolved.
- Cell bank
- Human genome
- Partial cloning
- Plant stem cell
- Stem cell controversy
- Stem cell marker
- Shinya Yamanaka
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(subtitle) Procymal is being developed in many indications, GvHD being the most advanced
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- Stephen Jenei for Patent Baristas, April 3, 2007 WARF Stem Cell Patents Knocked Down in Round One
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- Constance Holden for Science Now. March 12, 2008 WARF Goes 3 for 3 on Patents
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- GenomeWeb staff, July 03, 2013 Consumer Watchdog, PPF Seek Invalidation of WARF's Stem Cell Patent
- Antoinette Konski for Personalized Medicine Bulletin. February 3, 2014 U.S. Government and USPTO Urges Federal Circuit to Dismiss Stem Cell Appeal
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Stem cells.|
- Stem Cell Basics Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health
- Nature Reports Stem Cells: Introductory material, research advances and debates concerning stem cell research.
- Understanding Stem Cells: A View of the Science and Issues from the National Academies
- Scientific American Magazine (June 2004 Issue) The Stem Cell Challenge
- Scientific American Magazine (July 2006 Issue) Stem Cells: The Real Culprits in Cancer?
- Ethics of Stem Cell Research entry by Andrew Siegel in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Stem Cell Research at Johns Hopkins