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What Is a Stem Cell Niche?

Stem cells and the types of cells they could become.
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  • Written By: Lee Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 25 July 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A stem cell niche is basically a location within the body in which stem cells can be found. The phrase technically refers to the specific part of each general area of tissue which is believed to contain stem cells. Many different locations within the adult human body contain a stem cell niche, such as the bone marrow, skin, and the liver. In addition, stem cells exist in abundance in embryos. Stem cells are basically unspecialized cells which can later learn to perform a specialized function, and thereby repair damaged tissue.

A specific micro-environment which is home to stem cells is called a stem cell niche. In humans, stem cell niches can be found in the bone marrow, the brain, blood vessels, and the heart, amongst other places. A man’s testicles and a woman’s ovaries also contain a stem cell niche, as does the umbilical cord which links a mother to her baby. When a stem cell is removed from its niche, it isn’t as able to divide, which is necessary if it is going to adapt to fill another function within the body. Scientists are looking at ways to grow more stem cells using “cell culture.”

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Ordinarily, stem cells occupy a stem cell niche until they are needed by the body to replace some damaged tissue. Within the niche, the stem cells ordinarily don’t divide, remaining quiescent until they are needed. The stem cell niche is technically a specific location within each general tissue area in which stem cells reside. For example, within bone marrow the stem cells are located near to the osteoblastic lining cells.

Scientists are searching for new stem cell niche locations because of the benefits that stem cells could have to medicine. Stem cells are essentially cells which have not yet developed a specialized function to serve within the body. This fact means that one stem cell can be turned into a neuron, a specialized brain cell, or an insulin secreting pancreatic cell, depending on how it is cultured. Cocktails of different chemicals are added when growing stem cells to simulate the specific environment they are needed to function in.

Some stem cell niches are located within embryonic fetuses. The reason for this is that much fewer of the cells that make up the fetus have specialized functions because they are still developing. These types of stem cell niches contain more useful stem cells because they don’t have to be “re-invigorated” prior to use. The use of embryos has made stem cell research a controversial topic, however.

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