Adult Stem Cells

Cell under microscope

Adult stem cells, also called somatic stem cells, are undifferentiated cells that are found in many different tissues throughout the body of nearly all organisms, including humans. Unlike embryonic stem cells, which can become any cell in the body (called pluripotent), adult stem cells, which have been found in a wide range of tissues including skin, heart, brain, liver, and bone marrow are usually restricted to become any type of cell in the tissue or organ that they reside (called multipotent). These adult stem cells, which exist in the tissue for decades, serve to replace cells that are lost in the tissue as needed, such as the growth of new skin every day in humans.

Scientists discovered adult stem cells in bone marrow more than 50 years ago. These blood-forming stem cells have been used in transplants for patients with leukemia and several other diseases for decades. By the 1990s, researchers confirmed that nerve cells in the brain can also be regenerated from endogenous stem cells. It is thought that adult stem cells in a variety of different tissues could lead to treatments for numerous conditions that range from type 1 diabetes (providing insulin-producing cells) to heart attack (repairing cardiac muscle) to neurological disease (regenerating lost neurons in the brain or spinal cord).

Efforts are underway to stimulate these adult stem cells to regenerate missing cells within damaged tissues. This approach will utilize the existing tissue organization and molecules to stimulate and guide the adult stem cells to correctly regenerate only the necessary cell types. Alternatively, the adult stem cells could be isolated from the tissue and grown outside of the body, in cultures. This would allow the cells to be easily manipulated, although they are often relatively rare and difficult to grow in culture.

microscope and slide

Because the isolation of adult stem cells does not result in the destruction of human life, research involving adult stem cells does not raise any of the ethical issues associated with research utilizing human embryonic stem cells. Thus, research involving adult stem cells has the potential for therapies that will heal disease and ease suffering, a major focus of Notre Dame’s stem cell research. Combined with our efforts with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine will advance the University’s mission to ease suffering and heal disease.