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What Is an Embryonic Stem Cell?

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  • Written By: Debra Barnhart
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 08 February 2017
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Based on DNA programming, an embryonic stem cell can shape shift into nearly any type of cell in the human body, or it can remain a stem cell. Stem cells can replace damaged tissue, which makes them a source of hope for treating a number of diseases. In 2011 scientists announced that they had found a way to create an embryonic stem cell out of skin cells.

Though both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells are used in research, an embryonic stem cell can be more easily programmed to become another type of cell, while an adult stem cell is more limited. Created from donated eggs that have been fertilized in vitro or in a laboratory environment, an embryonic stem cell is grown in a culture. If conditions are conducive to producing enough stem cells, some will be removed to a new culture dish, and the process will be repeated. Original embryonic stem cells can give rise to millions of stem cells for research and the possible treatment of diseases.

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Scientists have found ways to induce embryonic stem cells to change into other types of cells, which makes them very useful in experimentation and the possible treatment of diseases. For example, by switching on the DNA in embryonic stem cells, scientists have been able to make heart muscle cells. Patients undergoing open heart surgery have been injected with these cells, and research seems to indicate that the new heart muscle cells improved heart function and helped patients grow capillaries.

Embryonic stem cells have been tested to treat other diseases as well. In 2011 researchers announced they had created brain cells associated with memory and learning from embryonic stem cells. These cells might be beneficial for replacing brain cells damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have also used embryonic stem cells as a test treatment for macular degeneration of the eyes — a common cause of blindness.

Researchers from the New York Stem Cell Foundation announced in 2011 that they had found a way to make specialized skin cells revert to stem cells. They achieved this by introducing skin cell DNA into an unfertilized human egg, thus proving that a human egg can transform a specialized cell into a stem cell. The research did not have perfect results, however, since the newly made cells had 69 chromosomes instead of the ideal 46. Such cells will be utilized for research and not for the treatment of diseases.

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