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You’ve no doubt heard a lot about stem cells, whether you’re an active investor in biotech and life sciences companies or not. But what are they, and why are scientists so fond of them?

Stem cells are a type of cell, which is the basic building block and smallest unit of all life. What sets them apart, however, are their ability to differentiate into other types of cells or divide and produce more of the same type of cell.

Differentiation is the process by which they can change into a more sophisticated, specialised cell, such as a muscle cell or a blood cell (example pictured).

This is what attracts scientists to them: their potential to be transformed into a specific cell could mean a damaged body part could be repaired.

In adults, they can act as a repair system, rebuilding tissue, meaning they have powerful regenerative qualities.

There has been some controversy when it comes to embryonic stem cells, which are produced in an embryo that grow into all the necessary parts of a human child like the nervous system and heart.

But isolating an embryonic stem cell necessitates the destruction of the embryo, raising ethical issues.

Thankfully, this is becoming less of an issue, as scientists have discovered ways of harvesting stem cells without harming embryos: these are called induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be generated directly from adults.

The ASX offers exposure to stocks in the field: Cynata Therapeutics’ (ASX:CYP) core technology Cymerus allows for the mass production of such stem cells, based off the one-time donation of an adult stem cell, while Regeneus (ASX:RGS) uses stem cells from fatty tissue.

This content is produced by Star Investing in commercial partnership with Cynata and Regeneus.  This content does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.