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A stem cell is a biological blank slate that can spawn many types of cells
in the body. The most generic and powerful stem cells are embryonic stem
cells, found in the embryo soon after conception. They can create all 200 cell
types, including blood, bone, skin, muscle, and nerve.
Stem cells not only generate specific kinds of cells, they also have the
power of "self-renewal." Unlike regular cells, which divide a certain number
of times and then die, stem cells can turn out identical copies of themselves
Embryonic stem cells disappear when their work is done, but even after the
body is fully formed, adult stem cells remain to replenish specific cell types
that are lost or damaged. Adult stem cells are more limited in the types of
cells they can generate, but they can be used in research without the ethical
controversy involved in obtaining stem cells from human embryos, which are
destroyed in the process. Because stem cells are so versatile, scientists are
working to harness them for replacement tissues in patients with neurodegenerative
diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The hypothesized "cancer stem cell" is a mutated, corrupted adult stem
cell that has cancer-causing properties and is self-renewing, making it a
dangerous renegade that some scientists blame for causing treated cancers
to recur. According to the hypothesis, solid tumors contain a small cadre of
cancer stem cells that often survive therapy, lurking silently to regrow months
or years after treatment to form another tumor.
Scientists continue to debate whether these
cancer stem cells are truly the root of all evil
in tumors. Nevertheless, the National Cancer
Institute and other funding sources continue to
support research that, in time, should answer
Spring/Summer 2009 Table of Contents