Stem Cell Research Why it’s Important and How You Can Follow Along


As a physician and the State’s chief medical executive, I spend a good deal of time speaking to residents about illnesses, diseases, and conditions. Much of those conversations center around prevention and treatment. But what if we take a step back even further and spend a moment talking about an advancement in biological science that is changing the way we treat diseases?

To many, the concept of stem cell research is vague and nebulous: we know stem cells exist and that they are key to much of the biological research behind treating diseases – but many may not know how or why they are so important to the science of detection, treatment and understanding of disease processes.

So first, what are stem cells? Well, stem cells are what I call “parent cells” that have the potential to develop into specialized cells (such as bone or blood cells, skin cells, muscle cells, etc.) when the body is growing or in need of repair. As an internal repair system, stem cells can divide essentially without limit and are the body’s resource for new cells needed in different body tissues. In short, stem cells are distinguished from other body cells by two important characteristics: they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves, sometimes after long periods of inactivity, and under certain conditions, they can be become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide within our bodies to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues.

Because of these unique factors, stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types – something that is vitally important for living organisms such as humans. For instance, in an embryo, the cells are the basis for the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lungs, skin and other tissues. In adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle and brain, adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through aging, injury or disease.

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potential to researchers and physicians for the treatment of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. However, a lot of work still remains to understand how to use these cells, and to appreciate the full spectrum of clinical applications stem cells may be utilized for. For instance, scientists are already using stem cells in the laboratory to screen new drugs and to develop model systems to study normal growth and identify the causes of birth defects.

As recently as June 2016, the National Institutes of Health made progress* as far as manufacturing clinical-grade stem cells derived from blood cells within umbilical cords that are capable of developing into any body cell type. This is incredibly significant, because clinical-grade stem cells such as these can now be used for clinical studies in humans for developing therapies to treat ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

Stem cell research is one of the most fascinating areas of modern biology. And still, as with any expanding scientific developments, research on stem cells continues to raise scientific questions as rapidly as it generates new discoveries. Many healthcare providers follow its progress closely for indications of progress on disease and illness detection and treatment, and now armed with a basic understanding of stem cells, you can, too.

If you’d like to explore more detail about stem cell research and the potential it holds, the National Institutes of Health have a wealth of information online at And even right here in our own state, the University of Michigan has emerged as a national leader in stem cell research. For more info about their progress, you can visit
*“Manufactured stem cells to advance clinical research.” National Institute of Health. June 24, 2016.

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potential to researchers and physicians for the treatment of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.


Comments are closed.