Stem cell research, part of a burgeoning field called "regenerative medicine" or "cellular therapy," has become a potential toolbox to treat incurable diseases and make spare parts, avoiding the need for organ transplants or surgeries. Embryonic stem cells have been isolated from aborted foetuses and donated embryos and kept alive indefinitely in the lab. Placentas may hold a new type of stem cell that behaves like an embryonic one without carrying the ethical baggage associated with aborted foetuses. Adult stem cells are being found in other novel places like liposuctioned fat. Umbilical cord transplantation (cord blood transplants) are of stem cells (unspecialised blood cells that are the building blocks of other blood and immune system cells) harvested from the blood contained in umbilical cords and transplanted into patients with conditions such as leukaemia, immune and blood disorders, and cancer. The first successful transplant of stem cells harvested from cord blood (as an alternative to the more conventional bone marrow transplants) took place in 1988. At 2001, some 2,000 cord blood transplants have been performed worldwide.
In 2002, a team of Norwegian scientists transformed skin cells into nerves and immune system cells. In order to "re-program" the skin cells the scientists grew them in a liquid containing chemicals made by nerves. Soon the skin cells started to look like nerves and then they began to activate genes used by nerve cells. The scientists then grew some more skin cells in chemicals produced by immune cells and the cells then began to take on the characteristics of immune cells. The researchers have yet to test the new cells to see if they function as nerve and immune cells; if so such a technique could remove the need for stem cells.