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Stem cells

5-minute read

What are stem cells?

Our body is made up of many different types of cells. We have brain cells, kidney cells, blood cells and many more. These cells are 'specialised'. They perform a specific function that other cells can't.

Stem cells are not specialised in the same way. They can be thought of as a 'basic' cell with enormous potential. Stem cells can develop to become the specialised cells.

Where do stem cells come from?

To start life, a human egg from a female is fertilised by a sperm from a male. Early embryo cells that are only a few days old are 'stem cells'. These cells have the potential to transform into almost any part of the body.

Adult humans also have a very small number of stem cells. They can be found inside your bones in bone marrow and in fat. They are not as versatile as the embryo stem cells.

Stem cells are also found in amnionic fluid. This is the fluid around a baby in the womb. Blood from the umbilical cord that joins a baby to its mother also contains stem cells.

Why are stem cells important?

Stem cells have the potential to develop into 'specialised' cell types. They can help with the growth or repair of your body tissues.

Sometimes, disease or injury can damage or destroy cells, organs or other parts of your body. It's possible that stem cells can be used to create replacement cells. They might be able to help repair the injury or damage.

There is a lot of research around the world about stem cells. This research is still at the development stage. There is hope that in the future, stem cells might help treat certain diseases such as:

Making replacement nerve cells could be a game-changer in treatment.

What are the types of stem cells?

There are different types of stem cells, including:

  • Adult stem cells, which can be used to replace damaged tissue cells.
  • Embryonic stem cells (from embryos), that can become any type of cell in the body.
  • 'Induced pluripotent' stem cells (made in a laboratory), which are adult stem cells made to behave like embryonic stem cells.

What are the benefits of stem cells?

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

Areas of stem cell research and potential uses include:

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

What treatments use stem cells?

The only approved stem cell treatment in Australia is haematopoietic stem cell transplant. It is the only treatment shown to be safe and effective.

This treatment uses stem cells from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow. It can be given to people with blood and immune system health issues.

Examples of these health issues are leukaemia and lymphoma.

Cord blood donation and banking

If you have a baby, you may consider donating or banking your baby's cord blood. The blood left in the umbilical cord after your baby is born is rich in stem cells.

Donated cord blood can be used to help treat people who are sick.

You can also choose to store the cord blood in a private cord blood bank, so it can be used by your family if it's ever needed. Private cord blood banking involves a fee.

You need to arrange for cord blood banking before the birth.

Are there controversies around stem cell research?

Embryonic stem cells

Embryonic stem cells used in research are taken from human embryos. These embryos are created during assisted-fertility programs. The owners of the embryos give permission for their use in scientific discovery.

The use of embryos to make stem cells destroys the embryo. This raises many ethical questions.

Therapeutic cloning is when identical embryonic stem cells are made. It is legal in Australia but can only be done under very strict conditions.

Use of unproven treatments

Some medical centres in Australia and overseas advertise stem cell treatments. These are not proven to be safe or effective. They may cause harm.

Many stem cell treatments for humans are still experimental. Media reports about stem cell breakthroughs can lead people to think that new treatments are available.

It is important to research stem cell treatments carefully. Focus only on reading proper scientific and medical research studies.

Ask your doctor to explain the research results that are in the trusted information sources.

Resources and support

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2023

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