New avenues for stem cell research

Stem cells for incurable degenerative diseases

According to researchers at the University of NSW a new way has been found to generate stem cells from human skin - known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. A paper outlining the breakthrough was published this week in the US-based international online journal PLoS One.

According to Associate Professor Kuldip Sidhu, this is a world first, and a significant advance on a technique developed by Japanese scientists who made the first iPS cells in 2007. He said, “One of the difficulties of the iPS cell technology is the cells are generated by the use of viral particles… There has been a fear that, while the technology was very robust, you could introduce foreign DNA to the genome, and the fear this could lead to carcinoma (cancer) down the track… That fear has been eliminated in this technique.” In this new technique viral particles are not used but an extract taken from embryonic stem cells is needed. This extract allows the processed cell to become pluripotent i.e. able to develop into a range of different cells or tissues in the body. Thereby these cells can be used to treat now incurable degenerative diseases.

Dr. Sidhu has said that his team will be collaborating with the UNSW's School of Psychiatry to produce stem cell lines for Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's diseases. “We can take a piece of skin from the patient to create patient-derived stem cell lines ... transplanting those cells into a patient without the fear of rejection…There is a future in using this ... to treat many diseases which otherwise cannot be treated at the moment,” he explained.

The other side of this discovery was the need for embryonic stem cells which are harvested from human embryos. “The iPS cells we've created appear very similar to embryonic stem cells, but they also exhibit variability and instability in culture…The next step is to make these cells suitable for long-term propagation, so they can be used in therapies,” he said.

Stem cells for baldness

A research team from Switzerland and Scotland was working with cells from the thymus, a small but critical organ that helps run the body’s immune system to fight disease when they stumbled upon the cure for baldness. They had transplanted the thymus cells onto growing skin in the hope that this will find a cure for extensive burns. These cells developed into mature skin cells with hair follicles. The experiments were performed on laboratory rats.

According to lead researcher Prof Yann Barrandon, head of the stem cell lab at the University of Lausanne and the local Polytechnique, “These cells really change track, expressing different genes and becoming more potent,” “This operation could have theoretically been reproduced with other organs,” Prof Barrandon said. It works well with skin, but could also be used to produce other cell types, in the process contributing to the fields of organ transplantation and regeneration.

The study was in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, UK and details are published in the journal Nature.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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