Applications of Cell Differentiation: Benefits & Risks

Instructor: Erika Steele

Erika has taught college Biology, Microbiology, and Environmental Science. She has a PhD in Science Education.

What is the big deal about stem cells? Well, for one thing, they are able to differentiate into any kind of cell in the body. This lesson will explore the various applications of stem cell technology in medicine.

What is Differentiation?

Multicellular organisms, like humans, worms, and plants form cells and tissues through differentiation, which is a cell signaling process that gives cells more specific functions. Hormones and transcription factors, which are proteins that turn on certain genes, drive the process of differentiation.

_Figure 1:_ All cells in multicellular animals start out the same, but a variety of signals result in the development of different or specialized cells.

Some cells are differentiated meaning they have many special features and they can only make more of the same cell. For example, skin cells can only make skin cells. The skin cell has reached its most specialized form, and does not normally transform into something else. In comparison to differentiated cells, other cells are unspecialized or undifferentiated and have the potential to become multiple other types of cells.

What are the Different Types of Stem Cells?

Another name for undifferentiated cells is stem cells . The power to transform into other types of cells is the reason why stem cells have so much therapeutic use. Not all stem cells are equal. Some stem cells can form all cell types and other stem cells can only form a few cell types. This lesson will discuss different types of stems cells, how they can be used, and why they are controversial.

Embryonic Stem Cells

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are pluripotent, which means they have the ability to form any cell in the body. ESCs derive from a very early stage of embryonic development called a blastocyst. Cells found in the inner cell mass of the blastocyst have received no signals from transcription factors. They have the potential to become any kind of cell in the body. Because of this potential, these cells can be harvested and used for research.

_Figure 2:_ Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent and can receive signals to develop into any type of cell in the body.

Somatic Stem Cells

Somatic stem cells (SSCs) are also called adult stem cells. Somatic cells are any cell in the body that isn't a sperm or egg. Once ESCs receive signals from transcription factors to begin forming the layers of the body, they become multipotent, which means they can only generate a limited type of cells and are known as SSCs. The types of cells SSCs can form depend on which layer of the body they are derived from.

  • Ectoderm: The ectoderm is the outer layer of the body. These SSCs can be found in the skin and brain.
  • Mesoderm: The mesoderm is the middle layer of the body. These SSCs can be found in the blood, skeletal muscles, and bone marrow.
  • Endoderm: The endoderm forms the inner layer of the body. These SSCs can be found in the organs, such as the liver or intestines.

_Figure 3:_ Somatic stem cells can can be found in a variety of organs in the body and can make a restricted number of cell types .

Cord Blood Stem Cells

Umbilical cords contain cord blood stem cells (CBCs) which are the same stem cells found in the bone marrow. These cells can be used to treat genetic diseases and cancers that affect the blood. Recent reports have shown other types of stem cells being isolated from umbilical cords and other birth tissues, meaning that with more research these cells could potentially treat diseases not associated with the blood. Similar to SSCs, any stem cell found in the umbilical cord is multipotent.

Why are Stem Cells Awesome?

The job of the stem cells found in our bodies is to repair damaged, diseased, or worn out cells. When you get a cut, the stem cells in your skin quickly help to repair your skin as long as the damage is relatively minor. If there has been major damage to the body - cancer, Parkinson's disease, or sickle cell anemia - the body cannot repair itself back to 'normal'. Since stem cells can be used to regenerate and/or replace damaged or abnormal cells, they can be used to cure some diseases.

Additionally, stem cell research is important for understanding the process of differentiation. Although scientists are knowledgeable about how differentiation works, the process is not fully understood. Knowing more about the process of differentiation allows more understanding of normal development and how normal cells transform into cancer cells. Finally, stem cells can also be used for testing new drugs. Testing drugs on animals is controversial because of the potential harm it has on the animal. Stem cells allow scientists to test the effect of a drug on many cell types without harm to a living being.

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