Stem Cells 101

Wednesday November 28, 2012 comments

Welcome to our blog! Since you are here and reading this, you probably are looking for information about stem cells.  Well my friend, you have come to the right place!  You have probably heard of stem cells in the media, whether it be the much discussed controversy regarding embryonic stem cells, hearing about some of your favorite professional athletes getting stem cell therapy as a “miracle cure”, or even an advertisement about stem cell therapy for pets.  It can get a bit confusing, this barrage of information about stem cells, so I am here to give you a brief tutorial about stem cells: what they are, the different types, and who is using them. 

First we need a definition: a stem cell is defined as having the capacity to self renew, and differentiate into different tissue lineages.  This is important for several reasons.  Mainly, it means that stem cells have the capacity to grow in numbers without losing their “stem-ness”. Secondly, it is important because we (us folks in the research world) can manipulate stem cells into becoming specific tissues.  Now, if we back up to the main idea of what a stem cell is, at the purest definition, we really have a limitless potential for differentiation!  Truly, this definition only applies to embryonic stem cells, which I am not going to touch with a ten foot pole.  However, there are many other different kinds of stem cells, if we modify our definition a bit.

If we move one step down the road to differentiation, we still have many populations of stem cells.  These cells still have the capability to self renew, and still can differentiate into different population lineages, although those lineages are more limited.  For instance, the first differentiation in a developing embryo is the formation of the trophoblast, or the cells that will form the placenta.  These cells are still stem cells, and can differentiate into different lineages, but they can only form the cell layers within a specific organ (the placenta).  This again becomes true with cell types that can only form internal organs, bone and musculature, and neural tissue.  This idea is mirrored many times over within an animal, both in stages of early development, and maybe more surprisingly, in an adult animal. 

Adult stem cells are populations of stem cells found within a fully mature body.  Yes, even you have stem cells within your body.  The great thing about adult stem cells is that we, the people of the regenerative medicine world, can use these cells to help re-grow new tissues for you (or your pets) without having to deal with the challenges surrounding embryonic stem cells.  The technology is in place to use self to self treatments.  While there are currently several types of adult stem cells being used to re-grow many different kinds of tissues, I am going to focus on what (in my very biased opinion) is the most important and relevant population of adult stem cells: those used to regenerate muscle, soft tissue, cartilage, and bone.  These are the mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs for short), found in both the bone marrow and fat of adult mammals.   MSCs can be culture expanded while still keeping their stem cell properties, and are being used in clinical applications. For example, culture expanded MSCs are currently used to treat such injuries as: tendon or ligament lesions, mensical tears, osteo-arthritis, and many other orthopedic injuries.

So who, exactly, is using this technology?  At Advanced Regenerative Therapies (ART) we work with veterinarians around the country to treat the above mentioned sports injuries in horses and dogs.  There are several other companies out there that also grow stem cells for veterinary use, and we can get into the differences there another time.  For now I hope you have plenty to think about in regards to stem cells.  Next time we will get more into what happens at ART once a decision has been made to use stem cells to treat an orthopedic injury.  Until then we want to ask you what veterinary applications for stem cells have you heard about or used in your practice?

Disclaimer: Advanced Regenerative Therapies is a commercial veterinary stem cell expansion company.  Information contained within this blog is solely for the general knowledge of the reader.  We do not diagnose any health problems, nor is this information meant to diagnose any health problems or substitute the judgment of a licensed veterinarian.