Your embryonic cells are more important than you think.

The life-changing possibilities of stem cell transplantation.

Sabrina Singh
10 min readMay 28, 2020

Cells are the basic building block of humans 🧩. I’m not joking, you’re composed of trillions of cells. You have more cells than there are stars in the galaxy.

Let’s talk about your special cells.

Okay, all of your cells are special, but some are more special than the rest. They’re your stem cells. Stem cells are especially important because they provide new cells for the body as it grows, and replace specialized cells that are damaged or lost.

The best part about stem cells is that they can divide over and over to produce new cells and as they divide they change into other types of cells that make up the body.

Daughter cells either become new stem cells (self-renewal) or become specialized cells (differentiation) with a more specific function, such as blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle cells or bone cells. Just look at everything they can turn into 😎…

Stem cell variation.

That’s cool and all, but honestly, this process isn’t something we think about. That doesn’t mean no one’s thinking about it. By watching stem cells mature into cells in the bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs and tissue, researchers and doctors may better understand how diseases and conditions develop. All just from some cells splitting apart.

Putting your cells to use.

There’s a bunch of other uses for stem cells too. They can be guiding into becoming specific cells that can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people. We’re not exactly lizards that can regrow tails, but we’re getting there (sort of) 🦎.

Stem cells are also being used before investigational drugs. Some types of stem cells can be used to test the drugs for safety and quality. This has a direct impact on drug development and toxicity testing.

When I first learned all of this, I was blown away. Literally. You have cells that can turn into specialized cells and help repair your body. It got me thinking about the million dollar question…

Where do these cells come from?

There’s actually a variety of different types of stem cells, all which have various purposes.

  1. Embryonic stem cells
    These stem cells come from embryos that are three to five days old. At this stage the embryo’s called a blastocyst and has about 150 cells. These cells are pluripotent, which means they can divide into more stem cells or specialize in the body. This advantage allows embryonic stem cells to be used to regenerate or repair diseased tissue and organs.
  2. Adult stem cells
    Adult stem cells are found in small numbers in most adult tissues, such as bone marrow or fat. They have a more limited ability to give rise to various cells of the body.
  3. Induced pluripotent stem cells
    Scientists have successfully transformed regular adult cells into stem cells using genetic reprogramming. By altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers can reprogram the cells to act similarly to embryonic stem cells.
  4. Perinatal stem cells
    Researchers have discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid as well as umbilical cord blood. These stem cells also have the ability to change into specialized cells.

Not all cells are equal.

There’s a lot of controversy around the use of embryonic stem cells. However, embryos being used in stem cell research come from eggs that were fertilized at in vitro fertilization clinics but never implanted in a woman’s uterus. The stem cells are donated with informed consent from donors 🧫.

Embryo development.

On the other hand, although research into adult stem cells is promising, adult stem cells may not be as versatile and durable as are embryonic stem cells. They may not be able to produce all cell types, limiting how adult stem cells can be used to treat disease.

Adult stem cells also are more likely to contain abnormalities due to environmental hazards, such as toxins, or from errors acquired by the cells during replication.

Let’s take a step back…

It all started in Canada, when researchers James Till and Ernest McCulloch discovered stem cells in 1961.

Ernest spotted an anomaly during a study they were conducting on the effects of radiation on mice 🐁. The mice had enough radiation from X-rays to kill them within 30 days if they didn’t receive a bone marrow cell transplant. They were also injected with a varying number of cells in order to determine how many cells were needed to keep them alive.

They then relized small lumps on the spleens of the mice, one lump for every 10,000 injected bone marrow cells. I wonder what that could be…It was revealed that the cells gave rise to colonies which gave rise to new colonies.These colony-forming cells could self-renew.

Then, in 1963, Siminovitch’s work, a molecular biologist, alongside previous findings, “convinced us that we had blood-forming stem cells. Before then, we only referred to them as colony-forming units ”.

This ability to self renew was the crucial defining property of what we know as stem cells today.


What’s currently going on in the field? I mentioned earlier that stem cells may have the potential to be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant and regenerative medicine 💉.

People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis.

Leading research in stem cell therapy.

Companies across the globe are working with stem cells to help fight these diseases. Here’s a look into the leading researchers in stem cell therapies.

  1. Sangamo Therapeutics
    This company has in-vivo genome editing programs for mucopolysaccharidosis type 1 and 2, and hemophilia B — all three of which are in Phase 1/2 programs, and three in vivo gene regulation programs
  2. Vericel
    They base their treatment on tissue collection from the patient. Its two lead products, Carticel and Epicel, treat cartilage defects in the knee and patients with burns greater than or equal to 30% of total body surface area.
  3. Cellular Biomedicine Group
    They are in the clinical stages of developing immunotherapies for cancers in addition to stem cell therapies for degenerative diseases.
  4. Athersys
    They are a biopharmaceutical focused on its lead stem cell product candidate, the MultiStem, which is being developed to treat multiple diseases related to neurological, inflammatory and immune and cardiovascular conditions, among others.
  5. Gamida Cell
    They run cell therapies that are intended to treat blood cancers and rare hematologic conditions. Its lead product candidate is omidubicel, which can potentially act as a stem cell transplant patients with high-risk blood cancer or bone marrow failure disorders.
  6. BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics
    In the company’s pipeline is its NurOwn technology platform, consisting of a range of products to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), progressive multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and autism spectrum disorder.
  7. Pluristem Therapeutics
    The company produces its cells in a one-of-a-kind 3D bioreactor that resembles the environment of the human body. The bioreactor can generate the cells on a mass scale. The company produces its cells in a one-of-a-kind 3D bioreactor that resembles the environment of the human body. The bioreactor can generate the cells on a mass scale.

Moving further with stem cells.

All of these companies work on the basis of stem cell transplantation. What’s stem cell transplantation exactly? It’s just like every other type of transplantation. A stem cell transplant replaces stem cells. It’s used when stem cells or bone marrow have been damaged or destroyed by disease.

Bone marrow to the rescue.

We’ve talked about bone marrow quiet a bit. That’s because, most stem cells are found in the bone marrow and turn into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Bone marrow.

When these blood cells mature they move into the peripheral blood, the blood that flows throughout your body. The stuff that’s necessary to keep you alive🩸. If the bone marrow’s damaged or destroyed it can’t make normal blood cells. In a stem cell transplant, healthy stem cells are placed in your body to help your bone marrow start to work properly. The new stem cells make healthy blood cells.

How do you collect these cells?

Just like stem cells, there’s different ways of stem cells for transplant are collected. I bet you’ve heard of them, you just didn’t know they were collecting stem cells.

  1. Peripheral blood stem cell transplant
    In a procedure called apheresis, stem cells are collected from the circulating blood of a patient. During apheresis, blood is removed from a central line or through a needle in one arm, the stem cells are collected, and the remaining blood components are returned through the central line in the other arm.
  2. Bone marrow transplant
    Bone marrow is collected in an operating room while the donor is under general anesthesia. A harvest team uses needles and a syringe to take marrow from the hipbone.
  3. Cord blood transplant
    Stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord immediately after the birth of a baby and then frozen. The collection process does not affect the baby because the cord blood is taken after the baby has been delivered.

However, not everyone’s eligible for a stem cell transplant. Doctors have to consider a variety of important factors before deciding to treat diseases with stem cell transplants.

Most commonly, doctors look at your age, your overall health, and the characteristics of your diseases. Younger people tend to cope better with stem cell transplants and have fewer complications. They also consider other underlying medical conditions you may have. Lastly, they look at the type and stage of the disease, whether you’re in remission or relapse, and how sensitive your body is to other medications.

Where do you get stem cells?

From people of course. Though there’s different ways to collect stem cells, the donors you collect stem cells from are equally as important.

  1. Autologous 👩
    An autologous stem cell transplant uses your own stem cells.
  2. Allogenic 🧑
    An allogeneic stem cell transplant uses stem cells from someone whose white cell antigens closely match your own. The stem cell donor may be related to you or someone unrelated who is found through a donor registry.
  3. Synegenic 👭
    A syngeneic stem cell transplant uses the stem cells of your identical twin.

Each type of stem cell transplant involves different procedures, side effects, and risks. The type of transplant you will have depends on a number of factors, including your disease, age, overall health, and donor availability.

Types of cells, collection, donors…and treatments

There’s a variety of different stem cells, different places stem cells can be collected, and different people stem cells can be collected from. There’s also different types of stem cell treatment plans. Stem cell transplants are most commonly done for cancer patients and are divided into myeloablative and non-myeloablative.

  1. Myeloablative treatment plan
    Myeloablative is a high-intensity stem cell transplant which uses high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells. In this process, bone marrow/stem cells are also destroyed. Patients receive an infusion of new stem cells to rebuild blood and the immune system. If a patient’s own stem cells are healthy enough, they are transplanted. Otherwise, transplanted cells are from a donor.
  2. Non-myeloablative treatment plan
    Non-myeloablative is a reduced-intensity transplant which uses a lower dose of chemotherapy and no radiation, followed by an infusion of disease-fighting stem cells from a donor whose tissue type matches your own. The chemotherapy suppresses the immune system to prevent graft rejection. It also creates some space in the marrow for the new stem cells.

There’s also serious risks that come with performing stem cell transplants. A serious risk of allogeneic and reduced-intensity allogenic stem cell transplantation is graft versus host disease (GVHD). GVHD develops if the donor’s immune cells attack your normal tissue and the effects can range from minor to life threatening.

What’s going on around the world?

Stem cells are currently being used worldwide to help aid people with diseases. A total of 1 million stem cell transplants have been performed worldwide 🌎. The number of stem cells needed for a treatment vary based on the number of doses required. The ideal number is 5–10 million per kilogram of the recipient’s weight per transplant dose. The minimum number is 1–2 million stem cells per kilogram per transplant dose.

Research published in Bone Marrow Transplantation shows that race and ethnicity have a direct impact on the success of stem cell transplantation. The registry has achieved a 90% rate for some degree of match for Caucasians, 70% for Hispanics and Asians, and 60% for those of African descent.

An initial thought I had was, how long do these stem cells really last? More than 20,000 people have now lived five years or longer after having a stem cell transplant. After a stem cell therapy procedure, the stem cells injected into the patient will continue to work and form new cells in the target area for up to one year. Current stem cell therapy cost can range anywhere from $5,000-$50,000.

There’s a bunch of different factors that go into a stem cell therapies and transplant plans. With the continuous growth in stem cell research, it may become the optimal treatment for patients with cell diseases.

Who knew the building blocks of your life were constantly changing?