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 legal in Australia under very strict conditions.
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 approved stem cell treatment that has been established to be safe and effective is haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (using stem cells from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow) for people with blood and immune system conditions, such as leukaemia and lymphoma. 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)
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2020