The importance of stem cell research in the U.S. has stemmed the flow of despair about diseases that seemed untreatable in the past. Each month, there are new discoveries unlocking the potential of stem cells in response to the millions of sufferers who believe in the advancing medicine of tomorrow. Mentioned below are some of those innovations made in February that show the endless possibilities of what researchers can do.
Neural Stem Cells
The application of stem cells for regenerative medicine has shown astounding results. Scientists at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich have discovered that Akna, the centrosome protein that acts as a transcription factor to regulate neurogenesis, plays a key role in the behavior of neural stem cells.
The research team, led by Professor Magdalena Gotz, Director of the Institute of Stem Cell Research at Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen, wanted to identify the inherent factors that regulate the differentiation of neural stem cells. By collecting and isolating neural stem cells, they noticed that the cells either self-renewed and created supplementary cells or differentiated into a specialized form.
Furthermore, the study showed that when Akna is available in abundance, the stem cells are producing neurons. On the other hand, when there is a scarcity of Akna, the stem cells remain in their niche – preventing specialization. It was speculated and confirmed that this was because of the protein’s proximity to the centrosome – the organelle chiefly responsible for the movement in cellular division. Akna acts as an anchor for the microtubules at the centrosome – weakening the attachments to neighboring cells and allowing migration from the stem cell niche.
What’s The Significance?
The significance of this experiment has shown that this particular function of detachment and migration, called “epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, or EMT for short”, allows the neural stem cells to detach from their assortment, multiply, and migrate. The implication behind this is if one were able to amplify and control this process, then it could entail the formation of new neurons which would compensate for inefficient or damaged cells.
The research leader Magdalena Gotz, has stated that further improvements in their research will be concerning the role of Akna around other stem cells – especially in the immune system.
On and Off / In and Out: The Key to Stem Cells
Scientists, from the University of Bath, have discovered a mutant gene in fish that controls stem cells. As was discussed previously: if one were able to intricately control the process of stem cell production and specialization, the development could lead to a paramount medical reform. The study, led by Professor Robert Kelsh in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, examined how a unique group of stem cells is controlled by mutations in a specific gene, called “parade.”
The experimentation began with an interesting yet simple observation; there was a new set of stem cells in zebrafish and they were forming skin pigment cells of varying colors. The pigmented cells are born in the embryonic stage of cellular growth. However, they remain dormant until adulthood, in which zebrafish display their dazzling colors of maturity. The full progression of these cells is controlled by the “stem cell niche”, an expanse of complex and interrelated factors. The types of factors are, but not limited to, “surrounding cell types, blood supply, and signals from nerves”.
The parade mutants, having abnormally positioned pigment cells, are dubbed that because the cells line up “like soldiers on parade” near the main blood cells. The researchers also verified two factors associated with each other: first, the new population of stem cells activates far earlier than normal. Secondly, blood vessels play a critical role in establishing this stem cell niche.
There are some universal factors, conspicuous or not, that provide a ‘co-operation’ type function for the utilization of other stem cell niches. As a result of this mutation, scientists have been able to attribute the regulation of stem cells to the parade gene for the first time. The research group is now exploring the possibilities of how the pigment stem cell niche controls the zebrafishes’ behavior. This topic will explore the composition of zebrafish blood vessels and what charms the stem cells while maintaining their inactive state until they transform. Essentially, what, in and out of the blood vessels, turns those stem cells on and off.
New and Improved
Induced pluripotent stem cells, commonly used for regenerative medicine, are originally in the form of various specialized cells that are “reprogrammed” into a more useful mold. The cells ‘fit’ these molds by genetic construction – a series of complex cycles that re-engineer the cell’s function and composition. Beforehand, researchers had to introduce the various reprogramming proteins, OCT4, SOX2, KLF4, and cMYC, individually to the cells in order to change their form for the desired outcome. The issue is because of the various programming, there is a greater margin for error, resulting in some cells with partial reprogramming. Ultimately, this led to less efficiency and safety for the patients.
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Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have recently reported using the measles virus vector instead to profoundly decrease the amount of processing required – “four reprogramming factors” – into one single vector process. As a result, the single cycle vector process is far more efficient for use in clinical trials and is currently “safe, stable, faster, and usable”. The researchers plan on using those stem cells to treat patients – while frequent testing has been done to ensure the maximum safety and effectiveness for the patients so that there is no risk of mutation or cancerous growth. With this system, there will be more instances of induced pluripotent stem cells used as an option in stem cell therapy.
The Cure to Parkinson’s Disease
New research for stem cell research has been spearheading a possible solution to Parkinson’s disease by replacing damaged neurons. Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, affects approximately 500,000 people in the U.S. and The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that this number will increase by 50,000 every year.
The symptoms include progressively worsening tremors, extreme slowness, and rigidity in movement, and impaired balance. Several motor and non-motor symptoms are commonly known to severely decrease the quality of life for victims of this illness. The current form of treatment, albeit effective in some cases, hasn’t secured its place as the permanent plan for therapy. It consists of drug therapy to stimulate dopamine production in certain neurons related to motor skills. However, it has a significant amount of side effects, ranging from physiological to psychological hindrances, thus limiting its effectiveness for long-term treatment.
For example, with time, patients experience “dyskinesias (spontaneous, involuntary movements) and on-off periods when the medication will suddenly and unpredictably start or stop working.” It would be frightening for a loved one, or the patient themselves, to see a medication unexpectedly stop its beneficial effects. Consequently, researchers resolved to pursue other likely conducive methods, namely, stem cell research that could assist without detrimental effects.
What Else Can Be Done?
Dr. Claire Henchcliffe, of the Department of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, co-authored a study with Dr. Malin Parmar, for a research group called “Multidisciplinary research focused on Parkinson’s disease at Lund University”. The plan was to use stem cells as a source for transplantable “dopamine-producing nerve cells” that could provide a more efficient means of dopamine generation without the adverse effects of the existing drug used, Levodopa.
Not New, But Improved
However, this idea of using stem cells isn’t entirely new – the technique was applied in the earlier 2000s, but there were ethical issues and adverse side effects due to transplant rejection. Today, the recent advancements in stem cell technology allow the materials to be varied, adaptable, and extractable from the actual patient. There is less fear of transplant rejection or other negative side effects due to foreign cells. Soon enough, Professor Parmar states, “the massive strides in technology over recent years make it tempting to speculate that cell replacement may play an increasing role in alleviating at least the motor symptoms…”. For now, there is hope that tomorrow will bring a new day for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Stem Cells & Rotator Cuff Disease
Rotator Cuff tears are incredibly common; it is a tear that affects the tendons of the rotator cuff, directly affecting the capacity of the ball and socket joint. Because the rotator cuff is a group of muscles that deal with varying degrees of strain on a regular basis, it is very easy to neglect trauma to the overall area as well as repeated trauma over time. When chronic tears occur, it can result in fat accumulation over the muscles, resulting in the weakening and atrophy of the area.
Manuel Schubert, M.D., resident in orthopedic surgery at Michigan Medicine, decided to explore the cellular, molecular, and genetic reasons for why rotator cuff muscles develop this fat accumulation after injury. In his study, he used a mouse model to confine these unique stem cells, called satellite cells, in rotator cuff muscles and calf muscles in order to compare the amount of fat that gathers in varying muscle cells. Along with this, they performed DNA-level examinations of the stem cells in each muscle to examine gene activation.
The muscle stem cells in the rotator cuff developed into 23% fewer muscle cells and the genes activated were in regions related to fat metabolism and adipogenesis, the creation of fatty cells/tissues. These results showed that the rotator muscle cells are prearranged to develop into fat cells, providing significant insight into rotator cuff disease and allowing researchers to use a patient’s own muscle stem cells to heal an injured area without forming fatty cells after recovery. The research team plans on examining the rotator cuff to further understand how stem cells work on muscles after injury.
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