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What are Stem Cells? Why are they important?
Stem cells are the origin of all other cells, and are the basis of the entire body structure - skin, muscles, bones, blood, nerve fibres and organs. They have the ability to regenerate or to proliferate and therefore produce all types of cells depending on their degree of maturity. Throughout life, stem cells are vital in repairing the body when you are injured or ill.
From the moment that an egg is fertilised, different types of stem cells can be identified:
Embryonic stem cells
First embryonic stage (Morula) stem cells are obtained in the early stages of embryo development. These cells are in a very early stage of development and are totipotent, which means that they can develop into a complete organism. In a second stage embryo (blastocyst), the morula becomes a blastocyst, whose mass is extracted embryonic stem cells. These stem cells are pluripotent, which means that they cannot lead to a complete organism, but they can develop into many tissues: desirable (heart, neurons, etc.) and undesirable (tumours). These cells can be extracted, however the techniques used are intrusive and may damage, injure or destroy the embryo; therefore obtaining cells in this way may be seen as being unethical.
Adult stem cells:
Stem cells are present in tissues during all stages of life. Adult stem cells have less potential than embryonic stem cells as they can only produce certain cell types, and are required to replace cells that are lost by the body as a matter of course. Stem cells from umbilical cord blood are multipotent, which means that they can generate tissues for many uses. Therefore, the role of adult stem cells in a living organism is to maintain and repair the tissue around them. Stem cells from the umbilical cord blood are adult stem cells, although not fully matured and have many benefits. Extracting umbilical cord stem cells does not raise any ethical issues, since they are obtained once the baby is born, and by a very simple technique that poses no risk to mother or baby. Stem cells contained in the bone marrow are also adult stem cells and have been regularly used in the treatment of serious blood diseases.
What is Stem Cell Umbilical Cord Blood (UCB)?
The umbilical cord blood (UCB) is rich in hematopoietic progenitor stem cells that have the ability to multiply and produce cells that have blood: red cells, white cells and platelets, with therapeutic applications in more than 70 serious blood and genetic diseases. They can also be used for autologous and unrelated allergenic transplants. At present there have already been over 8,000 transplants worldwide.