What are Progenitor Cells?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Progenitor cells are cells with the capability of differentiating into several different cell types as needed. They are related to stem cells, but have more limited functions than stem cells. Laboratories work with these cells in the process of conducting research on cell differentiation and the use of various cells in medical treatments. These cells can be found in numerous locations within the body and are being produced all the time to keep up a continuous supply of fresh cells.

An example of a progenitor cell is an undifferentiated blood cell produced in the bone marrow.
An example of a progenitor cell is an undifferentiated blood cell produced in the bone marrow.

These cells are known as oligopotent or multipotent. This means that they are capable of developing and differentiating into several cell types, but not any cell type. By contrast, stem cells are totipotent, with the ability to differentiate into any cell type, or pluripotent, with the capacity to develop into a number of different types of cell. An example of a progenitor cell is an undifferentiated blood cell produced in the bone marrow. The cell could mature into any number of blood cells, but it cannot grow up to be another cell type like a muscle cell or a nerve cell.

The body uses these cells to replace cells as they are damaged or die naturally with age. Progenitor cells tend to mature slowly and they travel through the body to the locations where they are needed. Unlike stem cells, their ability to divide is limited. When people experience injuries, these cells can be triggered to start dividing and maturing to repair and replace damaged tissue.

For researchers, progenitor cells are a topic of interest in studies on how the body recovers and changes over time. They also have potential applications in medical treatment, along with stem cells. If undifferentiated cells can be introduced to a patient and encouraged to mature, it may be possible to repair damage the body cannot heal on its own and there is a potential to use such cells in a wide variety of treatments. Extensive research is needed to learn more about how these cells work and how they can be applied to medicine.

Numerous scientific supply companies make progenitor cells available for researchers. Their samples can come from human or animal origins and they are carefully controlled in the lab environment to ensure that they are pure. Researchers can use these prepared cells for their studies to save time in their studies by getting prepackaged cells rather than having to harvest and isolate them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@gimbell - You're right -- progenitor cells can be acquired from an adult person or animal, which cuts out that controversial harvesting from embryos that has gotten so many non-scientific people talking about stem cell research.

However, don't think that progenitor cells are a good replacement for stem cells as far as research goes. There are some pretty hefty differences between these two cell types, all of which add up to the fact that basically stem cells are better all-around.

Progenitor cells, for example, can only divide a certain amount of times before they expire. They have no system of self-renewel, so they do eventually die. And of course, they can't turn into just any kind of cell your body may need.

Stem cells, on the other hand, can divide an infinite number of times. They renew and repair themselves, so technically healthy stem cells shouldn't ever really die, and they can become literally any cell that your body needs. That's some pretty potent stuff.


So, since scientists are buying these progenitor cells from science supply companies to use all the time, can I safely assume that progenitor cells are acquired in a much less controversial way than stem cells are?

From what I've read here, it seems to me that progenitor cells can be acquired from an adult, since the body makes ts own supply of them to replenish the cells that die off and stuff.


@aishia - I can just see it now. People will have little progenitor cell booster packs that they can take to give their body a renewed, healthy cell population. Sounds rather science fiction like, but hey, the article says that science supply companies are already providing harvested pure progenitor cells to scientists for experiments, so it's not like these cells are difficult to acquire.

My biggest concern if there were progenitor cell booster packs for anti-aging and/or better health would be where they came from. I mean, they haven't turned into any particular body cell yet, but they're still made from a particular person's DNA, right? What if those cells ended up being rejected by your body? Would it depend on blood type?

It's definitely food for thought. Interesting article, and I will be keeping an eye out for the word "progenitor" to pop up in the near future in any products.


Very interesting stuff. I could easily see these progenitor cells being put to use in anti-aging fields. If we could harness the power these cells have to rejuvenate and repair the body while it is young, we might someday be able to "reprogram" them to continue turning into the right amount of young cells that the body needs to keep in a properly repaired youthful state.

I mean, all aging is, really, is the body starting to get run-down and ceasing to produce things like the cells responsible for your hair color and for keeping your skin supple and for keeping your bones dense, right?

At the same time, the body stops repairing damaged things like organs as well as it used to. This is why if an 85 year old women breaks her hip, it's a lot more life-threatening than if that same women broke her hip at, say, age 25.

Progenitor cells that could still turn into the number and type of cells needed to repair the body like a young adult's could literally be a medical miracle waiting to happen.

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