Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Therapeutic cloning

Therapeutic cloning
beginning of content

Stem cells

2-minute read

Stem cells are ‘unspecialised’ cells in the body that have the potential to develop into ‘specialised’ cell types (e.g. blood cells, muscle cells, nerve cells) that have been lost through illness or injury. Stem cells are being researched for their potential to treat various medical conditions but this research is still at the early stages. In most cases, their use is controversial.

How stem cells work

Stem cells can help with the growth or repair of body tissues.

There are different types, including:

  • adult stem cells, which replace damaged tissue cells
  • embryonic stem cells (from embryos), that can become any cell in the body
  • ‘induced pluripotent’ stem cells (made in a laboratory), which are adult stem cells made to behave like embryonic stem cells

The benefits of stem cells

The main benefits of stem cells are their ability to differentiate (transform) into any cell type, and their ability to repair damaged tissue. Because of this, researchers think they may have a role in treating a range of medical conditions.

Controversies of stem cell research

Embryonic stem cells

Embryonic stem cells used in research are taken from excess human embryos produced during assisted-fertility programs. This results in the destruction of the embryos, raising many ethical questions.

Therapeutic cloning, which involves creating identical embryonic stem cells using an unfertilised human egg, is less controversial.

Use of unproven treatments

Many stem cell treatments are still experimental and are not yet proven to be safe and effective. However, media reports about stem cell breakthroughs sometimes imply that experimental treatments are available. Furthermore, some stem cell clinics offer unproven treatments that may be harmful.

It is essential to research stem cell treatments thoroughly using trusted information sources , and to talk to your doctor.

How stem cells can be used

The only stem cell treatment that has been established to be safe and effective is for people with blood and immune system conditions, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, via bone marrow transplant. Other uses are still experimental.

Areas of stem cell research and potential uses:

  • cell biology research
  • using stem cells to study the development of disease
  • testing new drugs on stem cell-based tissues
  • replacing or regenerating diseased tissues, such as nerves or heart muscle (stem cell therapy)

Sources:

TGA (Stem cell treatments and regulation - a quick guide for consumers), NHMRC (Stem cell treatments – a quick guide for medical practitioners), NHMRC (Stem cell treatments – frequently asked questions), NHMRC (Stem cells, cloning and related issues)

Last reviewed: September 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Stem Cell Transplants - Information & Support - CanTeen

With a stem cell transplant, cells are taken from your blood before chemotherapy and then later returned after chemotherapy. Learn more with CanTeen.

Read more on CanTeen website

Stem cell treatments - Musculoskeletal Australia (MSK)

Stem cells treatments are still experimental. Its important youre well informed, ask lots of questions and talk with your doctor. Find out more.

Read more on Musculoskeletal Australia website

Stem cell treatments and regulation - a quick guide for consumers | Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)

Commonly asked questions about stem cells and regulation

Read more on TGA – Therapeutic Goods Administration website

Stem Cell Treatments Frequently Asked Questions | NHMRC

Publication Data Go to downloads

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

I need to know about stem cells :: Transfusion resources

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service is a division of the Australian Red Cross. Funded by the federal, state and territory governments of Australia to supply the community with safe, high quality blood and blood products, as well as organ and bone marrow services for transplantation.

Read more on Australian Red Cross Blood Service website

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) information | myVMC

Myelodysplastic syndrome is a group of disorders that affect the stem cells in bone marrow that make blood cells. It can progress to leukaemia.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Muscular dystrophy treatment information video | myVMC

Muscular dystrophy is a neuromuscular disease. Stem cell therapies are being developed to treat muscular dystrophy and other muscle diseases.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Graft Versus Host Disease - Information & Support - CanTeen

Sometimes when people receive stem cells from a donor, the new cells (or graft) reacts against their tissues (host). Learn more with CanTeen.

Read more on CanTeen website

Lymphoblastic leukaemia (childhood bone marrow cancer) | myVMC

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer. It affects stem cells in bone marrow (lymphoblasts) which mature into blood vessels.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Alzheimer's disease | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Get the facts on Alzheimers disease, and Garvan's research focus. We look at the signalling pathways regulating neuroplasticity, and harnessing the brains own adult stem cells. Alzheimers is a degenerative condition of the brain characterised by memory loss and reduced cognitive function.

Read more on Garvan Institute of Medical Research website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo