Stem cells are accompanying us at all times – as embryonic stem cells during the earliest developmental stages to adult stem cells in the mature organism. They are the reason for our bodies own regenerative potential. Responsible for this are two unique properties of stem cells:

  1. Stem cells are largely unspecialized precursor cells that are capable to develop into various cell types and tissues. This process can be triggered by stimuli from the environment and is called differentiation.
  2. In contrast to specialized/differentiated cells, stem cells can divide almost indefinitely. Therefore, they can build new stem cells whenever needed.

The stem cell variety

Stem cells are classified according to their origin and differentiation potential. Totipotent (lat. totus = whole) stem cells possess the full differentiation capacity. Starting with them, a whole mature organism can be formed. Pluripotent (lat. plus = many) stem cells have a similar capacity, however, they cannot give rise to a complete organism. Multipotent (lat. multus = numerous) stem cells are more specialized, they can only differentiate into cells of a distinct line. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) e.g. are multipotent. They are precursors of bone, cartilage, muscle, liver or fat cells.

Embryonic stem cells

The whole human organism originates from one (totipotent) fertilized egg cell (zygote). The embryonal daughter stem cells can produce more than 200 different cell types, however, since they cannot intrinsically give rise to a new organism, they are called pluripotent. These embryonic stem cells are harvested from the blastocyst 5-7 days after fertilization.
Due to their extraordinary differentiation potential, human embryonal stem cells are of great interest for basic research as well as medical science. On the same time, their use raises mayor ethical concerns since a blastocyst –an early stage of the embryo – has to be destroyed to isolate these cells. Furthermore, embryonal stem cells harbor the risk to form aggressive teratoma (tumors) when transplanted. Therefore, their use for standard therapies is not acceptable from our perspective.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can be artificially generated in the lab by reprogramming tissue specific cells (e.g. skin). They exhibit similar features compared to embryonal stem cells, and hence offer a great opportunity for medical applications. In contrast to their natural occurring counterpart, there are no ethical concerns associated with their use. On the downside, iPSCs are also prone to malignant degeneration. This increased risk of cancer formation in patients renders iPSCs only limited suitable for therapies.

Adult stem cells

Stem cells also exists in the mature organism in multiple tissues. They reside in the bone marrow, brain, liver, adipose tissue, skin and blood vessels. Adult stem cells are responsible for the regeneration of the surrounding tissues. They have a reduced potential to differentiate when compared to embryonal stem cells and are therefore called multipotent. On the other hand, there is no cancer risk associated with their use in new therapies. Therefore, they are of great value for medicine and are being utilized for the treatment of a multitude of conditions and disease.

Mesenchymal stem cells such as ASCs (adipose-derived stem cells) are precursors of the supportive and connective tissue. ASCs have a high capacity to proliferate and posess anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, ASCs can differentiate in a variety of cell types, including muscle, cartilage, bone and liver cells, to replace damaged tissues. Therefore, they are perfectly suited for therapeutic applications in degenerative disease such as arthrosis, liver disease (acute liver failure, cirrhosis) or autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or diabetes type I.

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