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What is Stem Cell Research?

Stem cells are the key ingredient needed to form every tissue in the human body. These cells represent the first stage of this process: they can copy themselves over and over and they are able to mature into different types of cells.

There are two basic types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Imagine embryonic stem cells as seeds that can give rise to an entire tree. Imagine adult stem cells as specialized cells that could only produce a certain part of the tree such as the leaves or the bark.

  • Embryonic stem cells, derived from immature cells of an embryo, can give rise to any type of cell in the body. 
  • There are many examples of adult stem cells, which are found in the body after birth and produce cells particular to the organ or tissue in which they are found.

In recent years, scientists also have found ways to develop embryonic-stem-cell-like cells from adult cells. Such cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells.

Stem Cells and Diabetes

Stem cells hold tremendous promise for treating many diseases, including both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Stem cells might:

  • Be coaxed to produce insulin-producing cells that could be used in islet transplantation through cloning.
  • Be used to prevent diabetes and its complications (including complications during pregnancy).
  • Be able to repair the tissue damage that diabetes causes over time.

Researchers are also considering stem cells in relation to body fat, and how to limit the accumulation of bad fats and perhaps prevent insulin resistance.

Although stem cell research, especially as it applies to human disease, is still in its infancy, Joslin scientists are advancing the field through various research.

Joslin Researchers Are Searching for Answers

Is there a way to program embryonic, induced pluripotent or adult stem cells to create insulin-producing cells? What genes must be turned on or off to make this happen?

  • Would transplanted blood-forming cells improve immune tolerance to make islet transplants more successful?
  • Can new methods, including transplants of blood-forming stem cells, halt the autoimmune process that leads to type 1 diabetes?
  • Can stem cells be used to repair blood vessels and other tissues damaged by diabetes? How do blood-forming stem cells regenerate tissue?
  • Do diabetes and high blood glucose prevent stem cells from successfully repairing tissues damaged by diabetes complications?

Most Commonly Used Terms

Adult stem cell: a cell found in the different tissues of the body – such as blood, skin or muscle – that can renew itself and produce the specialized cells needed by that tissue (known as  multipotency).

Cloning: a process for creating a genetically identical copy of a cell or an organism.

Differentiation: the process by which an unspecialized cell changes into a more organized or complex cell that performs a certain function, such as an insulin-producing beta cell.

Embryonic stem cell: an unspecialized cell in an embryo that can divide indefinitely (self renew) and produce any cell in the body needed after birth (known as pluripotency).

Induced pluripotent stem cell: an embryonic-stem-cell-like cell derived from an adult cell.

Regenerative medicine: therapies using stem cells to replace or repair damaged or defective tissue.

Page last updated: April 16, 2014