Harvard Men's Health Watch

Stem cells and the prostate

Mention stem cells, and many people think of divisive ethical controversies and heated political debates. Indeed, stem cell research has crucial ethical dimensions. Leaving moral complexities aside, though, the basic research is fascinating and important in its own right. And although the prostate lags far behind other areas of stem cell science, reports suggest that stem cells may someday assume a role in the diagnosis and treatment of prostate diseases.

What are stem cells?

Just as the stem of a plant gives rise to other structures, stem cells give rise to all the other cells in the body. Stem cells are undifferentiated, or unspecialized, cells that are able to renew and regenerate themselves through the process of cell division. In addition, if conditions are right, they can differentiate and mature into the specialized cells that make up all of the body's tissues and organs.

There are two main types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have the greatest potential to differentiate into specialized cells. Indeed, just a few stem cells present at the very beginning of embryonic life eventually differentiate into cells as different as beating heart muscle cells, nerve cells that generate and transmit vital signals, and pancreas cells that produce insulin. Embryonic stem cells give rise to each and every one of the body's 10 trillion cells.

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