October 4, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Big Gains for Adult Stem Cells Announced

Ever since Shinya Yamanaka figured out how to coax skin cells to become pluripotent stem cells in 2007 (something for which he is being considered for a Nobel Prize, see PhysOrg), other researchers have been improving on his idea.  Three big gains were announced recently.
    PhysOrg and New Scientist reported work by Derrick Rossi of the Children’s Hospital Boston, who found that programmed messenger RNA (mRNA) can safely insert the cocktail of genetic switches into a cell without modifying the DNA with virus vectors.  PhysOrg said that the resulting induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are “apparently identical to human embryonic stem cells, the initial building blocks of all the organs of the body.”  Science Daily said the new method is “remarkably efficient.”
    Another remarkable finding that could speed up the production of adult stem cells was made in Australia.  PhysOrg reported that researchers at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney has “found a way to increase the number of blood-forming stem cells when growing them outside of the body.”  The secret is to put them on a unique stretchy surface that mimics their own natural environment in the body.  Combining this factor with the previously-used hormone treatments produced two to three times more stem cells in culture.  The more they can be grown in the lab, the less they must be harvested from the body – umbilical cords, bone marrow, and other sites – and the more patients can benefit.
    In another breakthrough, researchers at the University of Buffalo have found a way to keep adult stem cells from aging.  Science Daily said a team has engineered mesenchymal stem cells to “grow continuously in culture, a discovery that could speed development of cost-effective treatments for diseases including heart disease, diabetes, immune disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.”  This will not only help bring down the price of stem cell therapies, but permit the production of individually-tailored cell lines.  Dr. Techung Lee envisions a day when “one can generate a line from each ethnic group for each gender for people to choose from.”
    PhysOrg reported on a presentation at MIT on the progress being made with stem cell therapy.  The ability to reprogram adult stem cells to behave just like embryonic stem cells really “electrified the field,” said biologist Rudolf Jaenisch.  Some of the hurdles he mentioned with iPSCs in his lecture are being overcome by the announcements from Boston and Sydney.  This is great news, because “Using reprogrammed body cells to treat disease would overcome one of the major hurdles to using embryonic stem cells, which is that embryonic cells would likely cause an immune reaction in the patient.”  Adult stem cells also overcome the major ethical hurdle of using human embryos for research.  It’s onward and forward for reattaching teeth (Science Daily), treating stroke (PhysOrg), repairing damaged hearts (PhysOrg), and who knows else might come from these wonder cells.

This is good science as it should be done: pure research that produces understanding, and looks ahead to the possibility of improving our lives.  “Do no harm” states the Hippocratic Oath.  A corollary of that is “Do no Darwin” (example).

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