What are Stem Cells?
There is a question that comes up frequently during discussions about spinal cord injuries and the research for a cure. “What is all this talk about stem cells and how are they related to curing spinal cord injuries?” This question does not have a simple answer. To gain a basic understanding of stem cells, a review of cells themselves may be necessary. A cell is the basic, functional unit, or building block of a living structure. Cells have specialized structures that give them specific functions. For example, a muscle cell has specific fibers in it to allow it to contract, and a nerve cell has specific electrical and chemical properties to allow it to communicate with other cells and with muscles and sensory receptors. The properties of these cells are not interchangeable. A muscle cell cannot function as a nerve cell, nor can a nerve cell function as a muscle cell. Stem cells, however, possess the ability to take on the structure and function of many different kind of cells in the body. For example, a stem cell may reside within a population of muscle cells, but it does not function as a muscle cell. However, under certain circumstances, the stem cell can divide itself to become muscle cells. This process is called differentiation. Scientists are studying the different factors and influences that give stem cells the ability to initiate and complete this process of differentiation. Both internal factors (changes within the stem cells themselves) and external factors (chemicals secreted by nearby cells) are involved. Before scientists can hope to effectively and safely utilize stem cells for medical treatments, they must develop a much better understanding of all the factors involved in stem cells. Scientists are also looking into the two major categories of stem cells- those of embryonic and those of non-embryonic (adult) origin. Correctly channeling stem cells may help with the search for new, effective medicines and treatments. However, the miss-use of stem cells may lead to complications such as abnormal cell growth potentially leading to cancerous tumors.
Spinal cord injuries present scientists and those living with paralysis with a complex puzzle to solve. Stem cell research is and continues to be an exciting, yet complicated process. When thinking of stem cells as part of a cure for paralysis and other diseases, it is important to remember that they are just one piece of this puzzle. Advances continue to be made in other aspects of spinal cord injury research. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the Travis Roy Foundation is able to support physicians and scientists who are looking into the many aspects of successful regeneration of nerve cells that will ultimately contribute to a cure for paralysis.
Stem cells are now being tested in humans at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. For more information on stem cells, please refer to Primer on Stem Cell Research from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation