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Turning Discovery Into Health

Stem Cells

photo of stem cell cultures.

Stem cell cultures in a laboratory can be converted into specific types of cells and tissues.

Stem cell research holds great promise for biomedical science—from helping us better understand how diseases develop and spread, to serving as accurate screens for new drugs, to developing cell-based therapies for diabetes, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and many other conditions that affect millions of Americans. There are 2 basic types of human stem cells: embryonic stem (ES) cells and non-embryonic, or “adult” stem cells. Just a few years ago, scientists discovered how to make a third type, by reprogramming ordinary skin cells that have already “grown up” into those that look and act like cells from an embryo. These cells have been named induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.

cluster of long thing cells around a central mass

Scientists discovered how to transform skin cells into a pluripotent state, giving them the versality of embryonic stem cells. Image by Junying Yu, University of Wisconsin-Madison

NIH research is progressing on multiple fronts to learn more about the differences between the 3 stem cell types and to create patient-specific cells for in-depth study of many diseases. The ability to create iPS cells is a significant breakthrough, since the reprogramming technique is relatively simple to perform with standard laboratory methods, and because skin cells are easy to gather and grow. The most exciting aspect of this research is its potential to speed progress toward achieving personalized therapies. With refinements, this method could yield an unlimited supply of customized cells.

Regenerative medicine is moving toward a day when we can repair and replace damaged tissues. In time, we will be able to make insulin-secreting pancreatic cells, bone cells to heal breaks and defects, and eye and ear cells to restore vision and hearing. NIH researchers are hard at work using stem cells as a powerful tool to study neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and spinal cord injury, to name a few.

Imagine the Future…

  • Stem cells restore motor function in spinal cord injury.
  • Screening new drugs is quick and much less costly due to rapid and accurate early testing for specific disease applications.
  • Bioengineered bones and cartilage ease joint disorders, improving the quality of life for millions.
This page last reviewed on November 30, 2011

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