In living organisms, an undifferentiated cell that can produce other cells that eventually make up specialized tissues and organs. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are located in the inner mass of a blastocyst (an embryo at a very early stage of development), and they eventually give rise to every cell type of the adult organism. Adult stem cells are found in some tissues in the adult body, such as the epidermis of the skin, the lining of the small intestine, and the bone marrow, where they serve in the regeneration of old or worn tissue. In cancer treatment, blood-forming adult stem cells are routinely harvested from bone marrow, stored, and then reinfused into patients to replace blood cells destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This potential for replacing damaged tissues has aroused great interest in using embryonic stem cells to treat a number of other conditions, such as Parkinson disease, severe burns, and damage to the spinal cord. Mouse embryonic stem cells are widely used to create genetically modified mice that serve as models for investigating human disease. However, the use of human embryonic stem cells, which requires destroying the blastocysts from which they are obtained, has raised objections by those who feel blastocyst-stage embryos are human beings. The first human stem cell line was created in 1998, using cells harvested from embryos produced through in vitro fertilization. The use of human embryonic stem cells is allowed in some countries and prohibited or restricted in others.
Learn more about stem cell with a free trial on Britannica.com.