Stem Cell Basics
What are the similarities and differences between embryonic and adult stem cells?
Human embryonic and adult stem cells each have advantages and disadvantages regarding potential use for cell-based regenerative therapies. One major difference between adult and embryonic stem cells is their different abilities in the number and type of differentiated cell types they can become. Embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent. Adult stem cells are thought to be limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin.
Embryonic stem cells can be grown relatively easily in culture. Adult stem cells are rare in mature tissues, so isolating these cells from an adult tissue is challenging, and methods to expand their numbers in cell culture have not yet been worked out. This is an important distinction, as large numbers of cells are needed for stem cell replacement therapies.
Scientists believe that tissues derived from embryonic and adult stem cells may differ in the likelihood of being rejected after transplantation. We don't yet know whether tissues derived from embryonic stem cells would cause transplant rejection, since the first phase 1 clinical trial testing the safety of cells derived from hESCS has only recently been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Adult stem cells, and tissues derived from them, are currently believed less likely to initiate rejection after transplantation. This is because a patient's own cells could be expanded in culture, coaxed into assuming a specific cell type (differentiation), and then reintroduced into the patient. The use of adult stem cells and tissues derived from the patient's own adult stem cells would mean that the cells are less likely to be rejected by the immune system. This represents a significant advantage, as immune rejection can be circumvented only by continuous administration of immunosuppressive drugs, and the drugs themselves may cause deleterious side effects.