How Stem Cells Work

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Embryonic Stem Cells

HowStuffWorks / Lee Dempsey

Once an egg cell is fertilized by a sperm, it will divide and become an embryo. In the embryo, there are stem cells that are capable of becoming all of the various cell types of the human body. For research, scientists get embryos in two ways. Many couples conceive by the process of in vitro fertilization. In this process, a couple's sperm and eggs are fertilized in a culture dish. The eggs develop into embryos, which are then implanted in the female. However, more embryos are made than can be implanted. So, these embryos are usually frozen. Many couples donate their unused embryos for stem cell research.

The second way in which scientists get embryos is therapeutic cloning. This technique merges a cell (from the patient who needs the stem cell therapy) with a donor egg. The nucleus is removed from the egg and replaced with the nucleus of the patient's cell. (For a detailed look at the process, see How Cloning Works) This egg is stimulated to divide either chemically or with electricity, and the resulting embryo carries the patient's genetic material, which significantly reduces the risk that his or her body will reject the stem cells once they are implanted.

Both methods -- using existing fertilized embryos and creating new embryos specifically for research purposes -- are controversial. But before we get into the controversy, let's find out how scientists get stem cells to replicate in a laboratory setting in order to study them.

When an embryo contains about eight cells, the stem cells are totipotent - they can develop into all cell types. At three to five days, the embryo develops into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. A blastocyst contains about 100 cells total and the stem cells are inside. At this stage, the stem cells are pluripotent - they can develop into almost any cell type.

HowStuffWorks / Lee Dempsey

To grow the stem cells, scientists remove them from the blastocyst and culture them (grow them in a nutrient-rich solution) in a Petri dish in the laboratory. The stem cells divide several times and scientists divide the population into other dishes. After several months, there are millions of stem cells. If the cells continue to grow without differentiating, then the scientists have a stem cell line. Cell lines can be frozen and shared between laboratories. As we will see later, stem cell lines are necessary for developing therapies.

Today, many expectant mothers are asked about umbilical cord banking -- the process of storing umbilical cord blood after giving birth. Why would someone want to do that? Once a mother gives birth, the umbilical cord and remaining blood are often discarded. However, this blood also contains stem cells from the fetus. Umbilical cord blood can be harvested and the embryonic stem cells grown in culture. Unlike embryonic stem cells from earlier in development, fetal stem cells from umbilical cord blood are multipotent - they can develop into a limited number of cell types.

Now that you have a better understanding of embryonic stem cells, let's look at adult stem cells.