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IV. How are stem cells used in biomedical research and therapies?

Given their unique regenerative abilities, there are many ways in which human stem cells are being used in biomedical research and therapeutics development.

Understanding the biology of disease and testing drugs

Scientists can use stem cells to learn about human biology and for the development of therapeutics. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular signals that regulate cell division, specialization, and differentiation in stem cells can yield information about how diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy. Scientists can use iPSCs made from a patient and differentiate those iPSCs to create “organoids” (small models of organs) or tissue chips for studying diseased cells and testing drugs, with personalized results.

Cell-based therapies

An important potential application is the generation of cells and tissues for cell-based therapies, also called tissue engineering. The current need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source. There is typically a very small number of adult stem cells in each tissue, and once removed from the body, their capacity to divide is limited, making generation of large quantities of adult stem cells for therapies difficult. In contrast, pluripotent stem cells are less limited by starting material and renewal potential.

To realize the promise of stem cell therapies in diseases, scientists must be able to manipulate stem cells so that they possess the necessary characteristics for successful differentiation, transplantation, and engraftment. Scientists must also develop procedures for the administration of stem cell populations, along with the induction of vascularization (supplying blood vessels), for the regeneration and repair of three-dimensional solid tissues.

To be useful for transplant purposes, stem cells must be reproducibly made to:

  • Proliferate extensively and generate sufficient quantities of cells for replacing lost or damaged tissues.
  • Differentiate into the desired cell type(s).
  • Survive in the recipient after transplant.
  • Integrate into the surrounding tissue after transplant.
  • Avoid rejection by the recipient’s immune system.
  • Function appropriately for the duration of the recipient’s life.

While stem cells offer exciting promise for future therapies, significant technical hurdles remain that will likely only be overcome through years of intensive research.

Note: Currently, the only stem cell-based products that are approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the United States consist of blood-forming stem cells (hematopoietic progenitor cells) derived from cord blood. These products are approved for limited use in patients with disorders that affect the body system that is involved in the production of blood (called the “hematopoietic” system). These FDA-approved stem cell products are listed on the FDA website. Bone marrow also is used for these treatments but is generally not regulated by the FDA for this use. The FDA recommends that people considering stem cell treatments make sure that the treatment is either FDA-approved or being studied under an Investigational New Drug Application (IND), which is a clinical investigation plan submitted and allowed to proceed by the FDA.