Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are stem cells derived from the undifferentiated inner mass cells of a human embryo.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they are able to grow (i.e. differentiate) into all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm and mesoderm.
In other words, they can develop into each of the more than 200 cell types of the adult body as long as they are specified to do so.
Embryonic stem cells are distinguished by two distinctive properties: their pluripotency, and their ability to replicate indefinitely.
ES cells are pluripotent, that is, they are able to differentiate into all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm.
These include each of the more than 220 cell types in the adult body.
Pluripotency distinguishes embryonic stem cells from adult stem cells found in adults; while embryonic stem cells can generate all cell types in the body, adult stem cells are multipotent and can produce only a limited number of cell types.
Additionally, under defined conditions, embryonic stem cells are capable of propagating themselves indefinitely.
This allows embryonic stem cells to be employed as useful tools for both research and regenerative medicine, because they can produce limitless numbers of themselves for continued research or clinical use.
Because of their plasticity and potentially unlimited capacity for self-renewal, ES cell therapies have been proposed for regenerative medicine and tissue replacement after injury or disease.
Diseases that could potentially be treated by pluripotent stem cells include a number of blood and immune-system related genetic diseases, cancers, and disorders; juvenile diabetes;
Parkinson's; blindness and spinal cord injuries.
Besides the ethical concerns of stem cell therapy, there is a technical problem of graft-versus-host disease associated with allogeneic stem cell transplantation.
However, these problems associated with histocompatibility may be solved using autologous donor adult stem cells, therapeutic cloning, stem cell banks or more recently by reprogramming of somatic cells with defined factors (e.g. induced pluripotent stem cells).
Other potential uses of embryonic stem cells include investigation of early human development, study of genetic disease and as in vitro systems for toxicology testing.