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What are stem cells and how are they obtained?

Every year, stem cells are increasingly discussed: they are used in various fields of medicine, as well as in cosmetology. But what are stem cells, where are they obtained from, and does every person have access to this unique healing resource?

What are “stem cells”

They are the so-called “immature” or undifferentiated cells that exist in the body of every living multicellular being. That is, the body of any mammal, including humans, is supplied with a certain “stock” of stem cells. Their main features are the ability to self-renew and form new cells, divide, and also take on the functions of any tissues and organs (this is called cell differentiation). The term “stem cell” was first used in 1909. The role of these cells was explored by scientists in many countries of the world during almost the entire twentieth century, constantly supplementing the knowledge on the role of stem cells in the organism and the possibilities of their application. The term “autologous” (intrinsic) stem cells is also used.

All internal organs, vessels, skin, and all other tissues are formed from stem cells in the period of prenatal development. Since the process of cell differentiation occurs before birth, the developing organism contains the largest number of stem cells, and by the time of birth, most of the stem cells are stored in umbilical cord blood, umbilical cord tissue and placenta.

There are stem cells in the body of an adult too. This is a kind of “repair kit” that the body uses to help repair and renew organs and tissues. But the older a person becomes, the less  stem cells they have, and the capabilities to “repair” the affected organ decrease. Reduction of the number of stem cells and inhibition of their production by the organism is a natural process that is part of the physiological aging.

Stem cell therapy

In the 70s of the twentieth century, stem cell rejuvenation became popular – “injections of youth”, which western actors and the Soviet party nomenclature could afford: those, who did not want to be influenced by age and had enough money, were given (transplanted) stem cells to activate processes of rejuvenation of the organism. Today, stem cell preparations are actively used in cosmetology and gerontology.

The potential of biological products of stem cells in the treatment of many diseases, including severe forms and the ones, that previously were considered incurable, is of great interest and prospects for science. The list of these diseases reaches several dozens.

The possibilities of stem cell therapy in reconstructive medicine are wide-ranging. In many countries of the world, including – in Ukraine, they are used in the treatment of high stages chemical and thermal burns. Courtesy of the stem cells ability to differentiate into cells of any body tissues, they help to restore damaged skin on large areas. If autologous stem cells are used, there is no risk of rejection, possible with the use of donor material.

Another promising area of ​​application of stem cell preparations is cardiology. Already in Ukraine, clinical trials on ischemic cardiomyopathy, disorders of the contractile function of the heart are carried out. A stem cell biologic can help patients with severe heart disease to survive while waiting for a heart transplant.

In our country, studies are also being conducted on the elucidation of the effectiveness of stem cells preparations in case of liver cirrhosis, doctors in Ukraine and other countries already have the experience of successful application of biologics in severe pathologies of the pancreas.

The use of undifferentiated cells can prolong life and significantly improve its quality for people with diabetes. It is known that this disease complicates with vascular lesions of different severity, which cause trophic ulcers of lower extremities, the so-called “diabetic foot”, and affects the arteries. Actually the clinical trials on the use of stem cell drug for these pathologies are at the final stage. All these studies are conducted in Ukraine. There have also been many positive results from the use of stem cell drugs in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia, and malignant tumors of various locations.

Human stem cells: which types are they 

Stem cells are different depending on the origin, that is, depending on what source material they are derived from. In addition to embryonic and fetal stem cells, the obtaining of which has serious ethical restrictions, there is also the possibility to isolate “immature” cells without any harm to the body, not contrary to moral and ethical standards. The stem cells thus obtained include:

Postnatal (“adult”) stem cells. These are cells of an adult organism, which, as already mentioned, are present and produced in it in small quantities. The problem is that such cells are often at a certain stage of differentiation, and this greatly reduces the possibilities of their use. However, there are advantages: you can get autologous postnatal stem cells, which means that the recipient will not reject them after transplantation, since this is his own biological material.

Cord blood stem cells. They belong to postnatal stem cells, but among all cells of an adult mature organism, they are the least differentiated. This means that, if necessary, they can be used in a wide range of diseases, in gerontology, rehabilitation medicine, because they have the greatest “repair” potential, differentiating into the cells of those organs or tissues that need to be repaired.

Depending on the “tasks” that the immature cells of the body can perform, they are divided into three types:

Hematopoietic stem cells are also called blood-forming, as they differentiate into blood cells. They are present in both cord blood and bone marrow – they are often used for transplantation for malignant blood diseases.

Mesenchymal stem cells are called stromal and multipotent. Their feature is the ability to differentiate into cells of bone, cartilage and adipose tissue. These cells are obtained from umbilical cord blood, umbilical cord, placenta. They are actively used in the treatment of diabetic foot (severe complications of diabetes mellitus, while restoring the skin), as well as in diseases of the musculoskeletal system, in particular the joints.

Tissue-specific cells are progenitor, that is, “progenitor cells.” They are present in organs and tissues, the body uses them when it is necessary to renew the cell mass of a particular organ or tissue. Unlike other undifferentiated stem cells that can be divided an unlimited number of times, tissue-specific cells do not have this ability.

For therapeutic purposes, hematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells are used, most often isolated from umbilical cord blood, umbilical cord and placenta.

Cord blood stem cells: benefits

The main feature of umbilical cord blood stem cells is that they can be autologous. Parents, who have preserved the umbilical cord blood (and often also the umbilical cord and placenta) of the newborn provide the child with life insurance for the case of a serious illness or injury. Every year new discoveries in medicine related to the possibilities of using biological preparations of stem cells are made in the world. Therefore, in the future, a child with such an “insurance” will receive a cure for many possible diseases. Since the isolated stem cells are autologous, the transplantation will not cause an immune conflict and new cells will not be rejected by the body.

One of the advantages of cord blood collection is the complete safety and painlessness of the process. Obtaining stem cells from this biological material, as well as from the umbilical cord and placenta, does not contradict any ethical standards.

Autologous stem cells can be used not only directly for the child, from whose blood they are isolated. In some cases, they may also be suitable for the treatment of his siblings, sometimes for one of the parents, because there is a possibility of an immune similarity with the donor’s relatives.

A biopreparation can also be obtained from stored stem cells, which are used for cosmetic purposes and in gerontology to rejuvenate the body.

So, the main advantages of collecting and storing cells of cord blood and placenta are:

Safety and availability of collection in any hospital.

Full immune matching for further use.

The ability to use cells for close relatives.

Ethics and humanity: the body does not suffer during cell isolation and there are no risks for it.

Stem cell storage

Cord blood stem cells, as well as biological material, isolated after collecting the placenta and umbilical cord, is stored in the Cryobank. Here you can see how all the processes associated with the processing and storage of cord blood, placenta and umbilical cord, in our Cryobank occur.

After preliminary preparation, the isolated stem cells undergo cryo-freezing and remain in special tanks with liquid nitrogen for any amount of time. As soon as they are needed by the owner, Cryobank will issue them on demand and deliver them in complete safety to any clinic where the biological product will be used. You can learn all about the storage of cord blood stem cells on our website or from the consultants of the Cryobank of the Institute of Cell Therapy.