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Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In many tissues they serve as an internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.
Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics.
1) they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity.
2) under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.
Scientists have primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic "somatic" or "adult" stem cells.
Scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos nearly 30 years ago, in 1981. In 2006, researchers identified conditions that would allow some specialized adult cells to be "reprogrammed" genetically to assume a stem cell-like state. This new type of stem cell, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease, which is also referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.
Adapted from Stem Cell Basics