Embryonic stem cells
Stem cells are undifferentiated, or “blank,” cells. This means they’re capable of developing into cells that serve numerous functions in different parts of the body. Most cells in the body are differentiated cells. These cells can only serve a specific purpose in a particular organ. For example, red blood cells are specifically designed to carry oxygen through the blood.
All humans start out as only one cell. This cell is called a zygote, or a fertilized egg. The zygote divides into two cells, then four cells, and so on. Eventually, the cells begin to differentiate, taking on a certain function in a part of the body. This process is called differentiation.
Stem cells are cells that haven’t differentiated yet. They have the ability to divide and make an indefinite number of copies of themselves. Other cells in the body can only replicate a limited number of times before they begin to break down. When a stem cell divides, it can either remain a stem cell or turn into a differentiated cell, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell.
Since stem cells have the ability to turn into various other types of cells, scientists believe that they can be useful for treating and understanding diseases. The stem cells can be used to:
- grow new cells in a laboratory to replace damaged organs or tissues
- correct parts of organs that don’t work properly
- research causes of genetic defects in cells
- research how diseases occur or why certain cells develop into cancer cells
- test new drugs for safety and effectiveness
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