Here is everything you ever wanted to know about cells

What is a cell and why are they important?

Trillions of cells make up our bodies, all working together to keep us alive.   Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. Each cell eventually becomes a cell with a particular function in our body.  Once they have fully developed their role, we often refer to these cells as differentiated cells since each is different and has a very different function. Just like our bodies, our cells age too. As the process of aging takes hold, our cells regenerate less and less and die off.

What is a stem cell, and how is it different than a regular cell?

A stem cell is like a master cell of the human body. Before the cell has differentiated into a serving a specific bodily function, it starts as a stem cell. A stem cell grows into any kind of differentiated cell type and gets assigned a particular function for the body, such as an organ. Initially undifferentiated, they can become whatever cell type the body needs to survive.

We all have stem cells. An unborn baby’s umbilical cord is full of stem cells. Our blood has stem cells too, and even our bone marrow has stem cells.  But stem cells also exist in other places in the body.

What makes stem cells so valuable is that they can grow out and serve any part of the body, replenish other dying cells, repair the body or replenish what it needs. We have used them for many years as a way to regenerate and repair the human body.

Are stem cells the only kind of cell that can regenerate in a human body?

Yes and no. Technically the stem cell is the only master cell and for centuries this was medicine’s common understanding. However, in 2012, Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon received a Nobel Prize for demonstrating a technique than converts any regular human adult cell into pluripotent stem cells.  We could now take any cell in the human body, previously differentiated into a specific function, and reprogram it or convert it into a stem-like undifferentiated cell.

We call these new forms of cells Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or IPS cells or iPSCs because they are a type of pluripotent stem cell that can be generated directly from an adult regular cell. 

I thought stem cells were only in a newborn’s umbilical cord, in bone marrow or in blood?

Umbilical cord cells, bone marrow cells or blood cells certainly have traditionally been the most talked-about source of stem cells.  However, the discovery of iPSC technology has unlocked other types of sources of stem cells of varying degrees of flexibility.  Acorn has a proprietary transport medium that allows you to collect these precious cells from your hair follicles for example – and that means accessible, easy to do and affordable. Other sources of stem cells make it costly and highly invasive.  Acorn lets you leverage iPSC technology and removes the historical challenges of highly invasive cell collection methods.

Why do iPSC’s matter?

The discovery of iPSC technology was one of the most significant medical innovations in our lifetime. Humans were no longer tied to finding stem cells through highly invasive methods such as blood draws, liposuction, bone marrow extractions or umbilical cord harvesting – but over the lifetime of a human have the ability to leverage any cell in the body and convert it into a stem-like cell that can be used to treat disease, repair and regenerate organs.  This discovery has allowed medicine to rapidly advance innovations in using cells as a much more accessible and affordable source of personalized therapeutic medicine.

Why should my cells be collected and preserved at all – if my body regenerates them why can’t I just extract them when I need them?

Much the way we all age, our cells age too. Over time, they experience irreversible damage that causes them to be less useful, or viable as we age. 

It is later in life, as we age and accumulate disease and organ failure when we most need our cells. Unfortunately, it is then when our cells are the least viable for cell therapy use. 

Freezing them at the earliest possible moment in your life will ensure you are preserving the best possible version of your cells rather than depending on aging cells.

Conceptual image showing blurred brain with loss of neuronal networks to illustrate Alzheimers disease in the context of regenerative medicine.

Regenerative medicine might help cure Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is something that has touched loved ones in my own life. Many of us have a friend or family member touched by the horror and heartbreak of Alzheimer’s disease.

September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and it’s worth remembering that nearly 50 million people globally are living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The World Health Organization predicts the situation will worsen in the coming decades: that number will swell to 152 million by 2050.

Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder characterized by progressive cognitive decline. Substantial neuron loss is observed even in patients with mild forms of the illness. Billions of dollars spent on research in the last few decades. Despite this and other tremendous efforts to develop novel medicines and therapies to stop or reverse the disease, there is still no cure.

Can stem cells cure Alzheimer’s disease?

Increasing the number of neurons, or replacing lost ones, could be a potential game-changer for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

And stem cells are capable of renewing themselves continuously, and differentiating into specialized cells — including neurons. I hold promise that stem cells may possibly hold the key to stamping out Alzheimer’s disease in our lifetime.

Several studies have identified key molecules or drugs that can reverse neuron dysfunction in elderly animals, including via plasma exchange. Transplanting stem cells to substitute for lost neurons is another possibility that’s being avidly studied. UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) recently brought together a multi-disciplinary team to seek new insights into Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Their work includes the potential use of regenerative medicine to treat the disease.

At Acorn, we believe cell therapies and regenerative medicine will play a major role in the next generation of healthcare. People with Alzheimer’s and a host of other devastating diseases and disabilities will benefit.

As a company that collects and cryogenically stores live cells, it’s an exciting and promising time.  Cells could help us detect Alzheimer’s earlier. They might become a therapeutic resource in the future. We can harvest and freeze the clock on our cells with no pain and help people live longer and healthier lives. This month, as we remember those battling Alzheimer’s,  we couldn’t be more proud of our mission.