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I. Introduction: What are stem cells, and why are they important?

Stem cells have the remarkable potential to renew themselves. They can develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. Researchers study many different types of stem cells. There are several main categories: the “pluripotent” stem cells (embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells) and nonembryonic or somatic stem cells (commonly called “adult” stem cells). Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into all of the cells of the adult body. Adult stem cells are found in a tissue or organ and can differentiate to yield the specialized cell types of that tissue or organ.

Pluripotent stem cells

Early mammalian embryos at the blastocyst stage contain two types of cells – cells of the inner cell mass, and cells of the trophectoderm. The trophectodermal cells contribute to the placenta. The inner cell mass will ultimately develop into the specialized cell types, tissues, and organs of the entire body of the organism. Previous work with mouse embryos led to the development of a method in 1998 to derive stem cells from the inner cell mass of preimplantation human embryos and to grow human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in the laboratory. In 2006, researchers identified conditions that would allow some mature human adult cells to be reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Those reprogramed stem cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Adult stem cells

Throughout the life of the organism, populations of adult stem cells serve as an internal repair system that generates replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease. Adult stem cells have been identified in many organs and tissues and are generally associated with specific anatomical locations. These stem cells may remain quiescent (non-dividing) for long periods of time until they are activated by a normal need for more cells to maintain and repair tissues.