Stem cells are primal cells found in all multi-cellular organisms.
They retain the ability to renew themselves through mitotic cell division and can differentiate into a diverse range of specialized cell types.
The three broad categories of mammalian stem cells are: embryonic stem cells, derived from blastocysts, adult stem cells, which are found in adult tissues, and cord blood stem cells, which are found in the umbilical cord.
In a developing embryo, stem cells can differentiate into all of the specialized embryonic tissues.
In adult organisms, stem cells and progenitor cells act as a repair system for the body, replenishing specialized cells.
As stem cells can be grown and transformed into specialized cells with characteristics consistent with cells of various tissues such as muscles or nerves through cell culture, their use in medical therapies has been proposed.
In particular, embryonic cell lines, autologous embryonic stem cells generated through therapeutic cloning, and highly plastic adult stem cells from the umbilical cord blood or bone marrow are touted as promising candidates.
Medical researchers believe that stem cell therapy has the potential to change radically the treatment of human disease.
A number of adult stem cell therapies already exist, particularly bone marrow transplants that are used to treat leukemia.