Way to Increase Stem Cells Developed
The big story today is that researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT have devised a way to increase the rate at which adult stem cells multiply, at least in mice. The press release on EurekAlert
Adult stem cells may be free of the ethical concerns that hamper embryonic stem cell research, but they still pose formidable scientific challenges. Chief among these is the doggedness with which adult stem cells differentiate into mature tissue the moment they're isolated from the body. This makes it nearly impossible for researchers to multiply them in the laboratory. And because adult stem cells are so rare, that makes it difficult to use them for treating disease.
The research has been a long time in coming. It began several years ago when a researcher, Chengcheng Zhang, was able to isolate special cells found in fetal mice. When these cells were mixed with adult stem cells, the stem cells thrived. Zhang analyzed the cells’ genes with a microarray and eventually discovered that they secreted several proteins which contained growth factors. When he combined all three growth factors he had discovered, the adult stem cells increased 30 fold.
The press release cites several areas in which this is an important finding. First, it could help with the problem of an inadequate number of adult stem cells being derived from bone marrow or blood for transplants. Second, it could be used with gene therapy techniques to determine if any stem cells treated with a virus had mutated to cause cancer; these cells could then be eliminated. Third, it aids in basic research in many areas.
The Boston Globe ran an article on this news (which has been picked up by other sources) and quoted another scientist as saying that this might make umbilical cord stem cells more usable in cases of patients waiting for a bone marrow transplant. A Health Day News story that ran on Forbes quotes a researcher at Tulane as saying "This is a significant advancement that can probably go into use right away."
I still have a few questions myself. The mouse stem cells Zhang worked with were hematopoietic stem cells, or those derived from the bone marrow. I assume there are several more steps to take before this is possible for human treatment. First, we have to come up with a way to obtain these growth factors. Perhaps human don’t produce them, or they can only be obtained in some way that causes ethical uproars. Second, we have to see if these growth factors—or their equivalent—work on human adult stem cells. And, third, it would be interesting to know if these work on the other forms of adult stem cells, such as neural cells. While a lot of adult stem cell research has been done on the heart and the immune system, neural stem cells still seem to be very complex to work with.