Stem Cell FAQ

There are millions of people living with incurable diseases. For many of these patients, stem cell research may hold the promise of a more normal life.

- Evan Snyder M.D., Ph.D.

Professor and Program Director
Forbes "Stem Cell Revolutionary"

  • What are stem cells?
  • Are there different types of stem cells?
  • Why are stem cells used in medical research?
  • What diseases could stem cells help treat?
  • What does U.S. embryonic stem cell research look like today?
  • How are scientists at Sanford-Burnham Institute using stem cells to understand disease?


  • What are stem cells?

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    Stem cells are the body's basic building blocks. Each stem cell is like a blank slate. Once it's given the proper instruction, a stem cell can specialize and become any type of cell in the body—neural, cardiac, cartilage, blood and more.

    They also have the ability to reproduce themselves infinitely, and each new stem cell has the capacity to specialize into a specific cell type or remain a stem cell.


    Are there different types of stem cells?

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    Yes. The stem cells described above are pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can become any type of cell in the body. These stem cells only exist during the beginning of an organism's development, when it is an embryo, and are often called embryonic stem cells.

    Adult stem cells exist in a developed organism, and are more limited than embryonic stem cells. These stem cells can usually only become a few types of specialized cells, based on the tissue in which they originate. For example, a particular adult stem cell may only be able to differentiate into different types of blood cells, such as a red blood cell, a white blood cell or a platelet. These adult stem cells are also called multipotent stem cells.

    There is evidence that certain types of adult stem cells can differentiate into a broader range of cell types than was originally thought. For instance, brain stem cells have been shown to differentiate into blood and skeletal muscle cells.


    Why are stem cells used in medical research?

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    Stem cells may be the key to a new generation of treatments for many diseases. Embryonic stem cells could be used to create new tissue or organs for patients awaiting a transplant. They could also be used to repair malfunctioning cells in the body. For example, stem cells could be used to repair neurological cells in patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, or to create new bone marrow for people suffering from leukemia.

    Basic medical research into the functions of stem cells can provide insight into how these cells work, and how they may be able to combat disease at the cellular level.


    What diseases could stem cells help treat?

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    Stem cell research is still in its early stages. Scientists have only been working with human embryonic stem cells since 1998, following discoveries by Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin.

    As we learn more about stem cells, they could potentially be used to treat a wide variety of diseases.

    • Alzheimer's disease: stem cells with the genes for Alzheimer's may help scientists test new drugs.
    • Arthritis: damaged cartilage could be repaired with new cartilage grown from stem cells.
    • Burns: burn victims may be able to grow new skin from stem cells without the need for skin grafts.
    • Diabetes: stem cells could be used to create new beta cells for diabetics. Beta cells are the body's insulin factories.
    • Parkinson's disease: Parkinson's is caused by the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells in teh brain. Stem cells could be used to replace these lost cells.
    • Spinal cord injuries: damaged spinal cords cells could be replaced with new, healthy stem cells to regrow crucial nerves.


    Basic medical research on stem cells will give us greater insight into which diseases may be treated, and how.


    What does U.S. embryonic stem cell research look like today?

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    From August 2001 to March 2009, federal funding was only available for research using either adult stem cells or a small group of embryonic stem cells selected by the government. During that period, there were only 21 federally approved stem cell lines, and 95% of federal funding went to adult stem cell projects.

    In March 2009, President Obama signed an executive order that removed that restriction, allowing scientists to apply for government funding to work with hundreds of new stem cell lines. The policy change removes the need for NIH-funded scientists to maintain duplicate labs with different equipment to separate work with NIH-approved stem cell lines and non-NIH-approved stem cell lines funded by other sources. The new policy does not allow for the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines using federal funds.

    Scientists in California have been able to work with newly created stem cells lines through this period thanks to funding from a statewide ballot measure, Proposition 71(.pdf), which authorized $3 billion for stem cell research in the state. Under this 2004 law, embryonic stem cell research is given priority. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state agency, makes grants and provides loans for stem cell research and facilities.


    How are scientists at Sanford-Burnham Institute using stem cells to understand disease?

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    Here at the Institute, researchers are actively pursuing cures and treatments to numerous diseases through embryonic stem cell research.

    Dr. Robert Oshima's lab differentiates embryonic stem cells to more limited-capacity stem cells, called trophoblast stem cells. These cells can form cell types found in the placenta, and could be used to treat placental defects that affect nearly 3% of pregnancies.

    Dr. Evan Snyder's lab differentiates embryonic stem cells into neural stem cells with untold potential for treating neurological disorders.

    Researchers benefit from access to Sanford-Burnham's Stem Cell Core Facility and work closely with scientists at other organizations.


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