Science -- Your Future, Scotland's Future
SCI-FUN Roadshow Exhibits -- Stem Cells
In this exhibit you learn about using stem cells to treat disease.

Stem cells are cells that can turn into any kind of cell in the body. Scientists think that we could use stem cells to treat disease.

Disease can occur when a patient has missing or damaged cells. For example someone who has type I diabetes is missing the cells that make insulin. If we could replace the insulin producing cells, we could cure diabetes.

But replacing those cells is difficult. We could try a transplant, taking cells from one person and transferring them into another person.

This has difficulties though: when someone has a transplant their body often rejects the cells. This means that their immune system recognises that the new cells do not belong to the body, and attacks them. To prevent this, people who have transplants have to take immune-suppressant medications for the rest of their lives. This puts them at greater risk of infection, and means they are constantly taking medication. Even so many transplants are rejected and the patient can die as a result.

For someone who needs a heart transplant, it is worth the risk and the medication, because without the transplant they will die. But for someone with diabetes, the risks outweigh the benefits.

Stem cells could be a way for diabetic people to get insulin-producing cells without risk of rejection. Scientists could make insulin-producing cells out of the patient's own body cells, by turning them into stem cells, then into insulin producing cells. These cells could be transplanted into the patient without risk of rejection, because they would be the patient's own cells.

Diabetes is not the only disease we could cure in this way. There are many more diseases that could be potentially cured, such as Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and heart disease. Stem cells could even cure baldness!

There is still a lot of research to be done before stem cells can be used in medicine, but once the techniques have been perfected, they will be a huge benefit to people's lives.

1 Stem cells can turn into ________ kind of cells in the body.
2 What is missing in people with type I diabetes?
3 How do we prevent people's bodies from rejecting transplants?
4 Where could we get cells from to make insulin-producing cells to cure diabetes?
5 Name two other diseases that could be cured by stem cells.
6 What cells might you replace to cure baldness?

1 Take a sheet of plain paper: this paper is your stem cell. Now fold it up to make a paper aeroplane or some other origami shape: this is a body cell that is specialised to do a task. Unfold the paper: now it is creased and not really suitable for making into something else. To make something new, you need a new piece of paper, a new stem cell.
2 Unlike animals, all plant cells can turn into all other kinds of plant cell. Take some cuttings from a plant: you should take a shoot of new growth around 5-10 cm long and remove most of the leaves, leaving only two or three at the top. Dip the end in rooting liquid or powder (from a garden centre) and plant in a pot with compost. Place a clear plastic bag over the pot and secure with an elastic band. Keep in sunlight and water regularly. Hopefully, the cells in the plant stem will turn into root cells after a few weeks, giving you a whole new plant.