Stem cell research is always progressing and pushing forward, making new marks on history every single day. The progress we make actually comes so fast that it can be difficult to keep up with it all. Luckily, the advances get recorded almost as fast as they occur, so a paper trail always exists, even when something new happens.
With stem cell research in particular, every advancement seems to almost be world shattering and newsworthy. Keeping up with the trends doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though. Just knowing where things are going now and where they’re going next is enough to keep up to date about stem cell research. For now, here are a few major breakthroughs in the scientific community as of late.
Radiation Resistant Stem Cells
Radiation therapy for cancer patients usually hurts the stem cells more than any other part of the body. Muscle damage is also a common side effect, but can’t be helped so long as the stem cells are too damaged to work on repairs. These two issues are only some of the reasons why patients who go through radiation therapy typically have trouble recovering, so researchers have been looking for a way to mitigate this entire problem.
The answer actually came from mice. Scientists from UC San Francisco found a new type of stem cell in the muscles of mice that happens to be resistant to all forms of radiation. Not only could this discovery help cancer patients recover from treatments but could even go as far as to be potentially used to protect astronauts from radiation in space. The possibilities could include eliminating radiation damage completely.
Discovery Through Mice
UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery’s Dr. Annarita Scaramozza was the scientist who discovered these stem cells. The cells themselves are a small, inactive population stored in the mouse’s muscles that can only be identified through the gene Pax3.
However, Dr. Scaramozza discovered that when an event destroys the muscles main source of stem cells, like when exposed to radiation, the other cells become active and help repair the muscle. In addition to this, Scaramozza and her colleagues discovered that normal stem cells can be made radiation resistant using treatments from anti-oxidation that humans can tolerate.
Treating Muscular Dystrophy
Riding on the coattails of the previous stem cell breakthrough was another also regarding muscles. A group of stem cells can be treated to continuously regenerate and self-renew instead of dying off with old age or from genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy. The secret is to treat the stem cells already there with Stat3 and Fam3a proteins.
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Stem cells, before turning into other types of cells, basically do two things. They can either differentiate themselves to become the new cells, like adult muscle cells, or self-renew to replenish the current amount of stem cells already there. When the cells are stressed and rapidly die off, more stem cells differentiate to replace the damaged ones. Unfortunately, this process wipes out the limited stem cell population if the self-renewal process isn’t regulated.
The lack of self-renewing stem cells is what leads to muscle failure, like in muscular dystrophy cases. While there is no known cure for these muscle wasting disorders, current research allows for more stem cells to self-renew more, allowing the patient to have a longer, more comfortable life.
Kingpin Cell Discovery
Dr. Mick Bhatia, director of the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, has discovered with colleagues a type of cell they refer to as the ‘kingpin cell.’ These kingpin cells, officially named the human pluripotent founder cells, directs other stem cells on how and when to conduct themselves. Essentially, the kingpin stem cells tell the others what to do.
The kingpin cells have different genes, so they follow different rules than other stem cells. As was noted in the previous discoveries, stem cells either differentiate or self-renew. While we do have a breakthrough that introduces new proteins to change this desire in stem cells, we also now have the leader that tells these stem cells how to perform.
This cell that’s only found in primates so far, which includes humans, is a major breakthrough in all regards of stem cell cures but particularly with cancer patients. Thanks to this discovery, scientists can now learn how cancerous tumors grow and work by understanding why human stem cells make the decisions that they do. If looked into far enough, this could have the potential to stop the progression of cancer cells in the body, but time will tell.
Healing Cornea Tissue
When people are faced with corneal injury, like from acid attacks, the potential to lose one’s sight is very high. The injury often results in an extreme loss of stem cells which prevents the eye from healing itself. Now, scientists have discovered an extremely simple technique that keeps the stem cells alive and reproducing which greatly reduces the chance for blindness. Turns out, the stem cells just needed a softer environment.
Scientists from the Imperial College London and Newcastle University realized that the area where cornea stem cells live is a much softer environment than other tissue. Dr. Che Connon, director of the study and leader of the Tissue Engineering Lab at Newcastle University explained, “We can now prove that the cornea becomes stiffer when exposed to injuries such as those caused by what are commonly known as acid attacks, and demonstrate that wound healing is impaired due to stem cells differentiating in response to the stiffening of their otherwise soft niche, and not because they are killed during injury, as previously thought.” This discovery is what lead to the simple yet revolutionary healing technique.
After an injury, the environment needs to be softened so that stem cells can continue doing their job, so scientists introduce a tissue-softening enzyme, collagenase, into the cornea. The collagenase treatments has been proven to prevent the loss of corneal stem cells and sometimes save the patient’s sight. Further research could focus more on changing the environment around stem cells to change their actions rather than directly change the stem cells themselves, which is a much more difficult process.
A lot of the discoveries found this last month have a lot in common, particularly when it comes to replenishing the stem cells we already, naturally have rather than inducing more stem cells into the body. Going forward, stem cell research could continue focusing on the body’s own stem cells which can save money and hardships when it comes to donating. For now, we’ll keep progressing to find life saving techniques that are not only possible but hopefully cost effective. Between easier ways to donate and better uses for what we already have at our disposal, you never know what scientists will think of next.
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