International adult stem cell 'retraining' project starts in Birmingham

An exciting research project to utilise the body's own stem cells to regenerate areas of tissue damage is uniting scientists in Birmingham, London and Ontario, Canada. The University of Birmingham is leading a three year study with long term aims of helping stroke, Parkinsons and diabetes patients. £401,772 funding has been granted by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

Stem cell research offers enormous potential for treating a host of diseases for which there are no cures by replacing damaged cells.

Certain types of adult stem cells seem to have the ability to differentiate into a number of different cell types, given the right conditions.  If this differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled in the laboratory, these cells may become the basis of therapies for many serious common diseases. 

This study sets out to harvest stem cells from brain and pancreas, with the hope of 'retraining' them for use in other parts of the body.  Stem cells from these two tissues are being focused on as they share a lineage and have similar characteristics.  Since it is easier to harvest stem cells from the pancreas than the brain, this project will evaluate whether adult stem cell transfer between the organs is a feasible approach for brain repair. Using the body's own stem cells should eliminate problems of cell rejection, and moves on from controversial embryonic stem cell use. 

Trial leader Ann Logan, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham says: "This is fundamental research exploring the versatility of adult stem cells and identifying the signals that make them 'mature' or differentiate into their roles.   It will help us assess the possibility of using the patients own stem cells to repair damaged organs in diseases such as stroke, Parkinson's and diabetes".

Ann's 18 strong team is working with world leading collaborators: neural stem cell expert Dr Stephen Minger of Kings College, London, and pancreatic stem cells expert Professor David Hill of the Lawson Health Research Institute, Ontario Canada. 

Dr Stephen Minger, Director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King's believes "there is no such thing as the perfect stem cell population, but rather that each disease condition dictates the cell population that will have the most therapeutic relevance".

Professor David Hill adds: "Only a few stem cells can be harvested from any one organ.  In the case of diabetes, using similar stem cells from two organs would allow us to have a bigger repertoire of adult stem cells in an attempt to reverse the disease."

Definition of stem cell - an unspecialised cell that gives rise to differentiated cells in a tissue or organ.

In their early stages in utero stem cells are pluripotent - they have unlimited potential to develop as any form of tissue in the body.  As cells go down a path of maturity they lose this.  However, most tissues retain a population of resident stem cells throughout adulthood.

The primary roles of adult stem cells are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.  Stem cells are thought to reside in a specific area of each tissue where they remain quiescent (non-dividing) in adults until they are activated by disease or tissue injury. 

The project hopes to define the signals that make adult stem cells 'mature' or differentiate within damaged pancreas and brains.  The project will go on to explore whether brain-derived differentiation signals transform pancreatic stem cells into new brain cells.  Conversely, the possibility of using neural stem cells to generate pancreatic insulin-producing cells will also be investigated.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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