You have probably heard of stem cells — but do you know what they are? Stem cells are sometimes misunderstood, and their powers and uses are still not fully known to researchers. But we do know that stem cells have the potential to transform health care as we know it. Within stem cells may be the secrets that unlock the cure for cancer, new ways to harmlessly test medication, and even lab-grown transplant organs, explain the experts at Stem Cell Westchester.

But let’s back up. We have to ask a key question before we begin to explore the complex world of stem cell research and applications. And that question is this: What are stem cells, anyway?

An introduction to stem cells

Let’s start with the obvious: Stem cells are cells. Way back in 1665, a guy named Robert Hooke was looking at cork under a microscope and saw that it was made up of little compartments that reminded him of the cells that monks slept in at monasteries. Hooke gave cells their name, though there was still much to learn. As science marched on, we discovered that all large living things are made up of these little cells and that each cell has its own anatomy of microscopic things called “organelles” — sort of the cellular equivalent of our inner organs. Cells can live, die, and reproduce by division; in fact, every time that you shake some dandruff out of your hair, you’re seeing clumps of dead cells fall out (gross, we know).

You may recall learning in primary school that cells are the building blocks of life and having your first glimpse of them under a microscope in your school’s science laboratory. You may have been asked to examine plant and animal cells under the microscope to observe their similarities and differences. All life forms are made of cells. While most organisms are single-celled, other organisms, including humans, are multicellular.

Not all cells are the same, of course. We have different cells than a tree does. And we have different types of cells within our body, too. We have blood cells running through our arteries and veins, nerve cells communicating in our brands, and so on.

These cells come from other cells, of course — we already established that cells reproduce. But here’s the cool thing: Totally different types of cells can be produced from the same cell. We’re talking about stem cells, of course. When stem cells divide, they may become more stem cells (as we’d expect), or they might transform into something brand new, like a blood cell.

In other words, stem cells are our bodies “raw materials” — they’re the things that make the different cells that we need to replace to survive.

Types of stem cells

Not all stem cells are exactly the same. There are a few main types, including embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are what embryos are made of. As you might expect, an embryo has a lot of stem cells ready to become all of the things a baby will need. But adults have stem cells, too. You have some in your bone marrow, for instance. Typically, these make blood cells for you.

Researchers have also found stem cells in amniotic fluid and have created embryonic-like stem cells from adult stem cells.

What can stem cells do?

Stem cells are fascinating things. They’re also very useful.

We’re still working on using stem cells properly. But we do know that stem cells can help people make the blood cells they need, which is why a patient may receive a bone marrow transplant. Doctors also sometimes embed lab-grown stem cells in patients.

And that’s just right now. In the future, we may be able to grow entire organs for transplant or for the testing of treatments and potential cures for terrible diseases. Stem cells are fascinating things, and they just might make our world a much better place.