What are stem cells, and why are they important?

Stem cells are the building blocks of the body. They are special, immature cells that can become more than 200 different cell types in the body, such as a muscle cell, a blood cell or a brain cell.

Stem cells also divide and create identical copies of themselves which repair and replace worn out and damaged tissues.

More information can be found on the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s website.

Are some stem cells already being used in medicine?

Yes. The mostly widely used stem cell based therapy is used in cancer therapy to treat diseases like leukemia. Multiple Sclerosis is also being treated with stem cell therapy.

In both these cases, patients are given healthy stem cells removed and grown from their own bone marrow or blood. These are called “autologous” or “self” stem cell transplants.

When stem cells come from another person it’s called an “allogeneic” stem cell transplant.

The donor can be a relative or stranger – as long as their immune systems are compatable.

Scientsts are also testing/working with some allogenic stem cells that work without triggering an immune system response.

What diseases could be treated with stem cells?

Stem cells are being eyed to treat many conditions: spinal cord injuries, diabetes, arthritis, ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, hair loss and skin aging. Much of this remains theoretica and most studies are still in the early stages.

Here's a list of the status of current stem cell work in Canada.

Dr. Duncan Stewart, featured in our story, is conducting a study of stem cells taken from patient’s blood soon after a heart attack.

These cells are grown in a lab with a gene added to stimulate blood vessel growth and tissue healing. His study is recruiting patients.

Here is a list of some other stem cell studies underway in Canada to treat disease:



Heart disease/Heart bypass

Heart failure

Neuromyelitis Optica

Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency

What are the challenges of studying stem cells?

The idea of giving the body a source of cells, in the correct numbers and types required to treat disease, is a tall order.

Scientists are still trying to understand what the cells do, where they go in the body and how long their effects last.

Some early studies of embryonic stem cells lead to the formation of tumors. Other, preliminary studies looked promising, but then failed in other tests.

To properly understand if they work, scientists have to study different doses of stem cells against a placebo. These studies are expensive and take many years.

Here is a look at what clinical trials require.

How long will it take to properly study stem cells?

That’s impossible to tell. But by some estimates there are more than 4,000 studies underway around the world, with many companies working on stem cell based products for future use.

You can find a list of some international registered human clinical trials using stem cells here.

What about stem cell therapies available overseas?

You'll find countless ads for “Stem cell Medical Tourism” online.

Often in developing countries, many claim to offer cures.

In most cases, their products haven’t been tested for safety or effectiveness. Yet patients are charged thousands of dollars.

In some cases, patients may not receive stem cells at all, with reports that some clinics inject people with stem cells from sharks and sheep.

There can also be complications: infections or progression of the underlying disease. Read more from the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

What is Canada’s role in stem cell research?

A number of studies are being funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

Also, a coalition of scientists via the Stem Cell Foundation are calling for an infusion of money over the next decade to push for more research in patients of promising stem cell therapies.