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[IP] Stem Cell Breakthrough Seen
MONTREAL -- Dr. Freda Miller has a vision. It is that someday she could take
a bit of someone's skin and transform its "blank slate" stem cells into
brain tissue to alleviate that person's Parkinson's symptoms, or pancreatic
cells to cure a patient's diabetes. (No cloning necessary.)
Miller and her research team at McGill University's Montreal Neurological
Institute unveiled the first step toward that vision last week when they
announced that they have discovered stem cells deep in the skin of rats and
humans that can become fat, muscle or even brain cells.
The discovery, detailed in the September issue of the journal Nature Cell
Biology, is a significant step in research showing that stem cells of adults
-- not just those found in embryos -- can change into many types of tissue.
If adult stem cells can be used to treat diseases, they might provide a way
to sidestep the moral dilemma of whether a tiny cluster of cells from an
embryo represents human life.
As potentially valuable as it is politically charged, stem cell research is
one of the fastest-moving areas in molecular biology. A few years ago,
scientists thought that adult stem cells could change only into the same
class of tissue as their origin. Only stem cells found in the brain,
according to this reasoning, could become neural cells, while only those
found in bone marrow could help make blood.
In the past year and a half, however, studies have shown that these powerful
cells can be coaxed into quite different fates. Stem cells found in the
brain can be changed into muscle, and those in bone marrow can turn into
liver cells. Unlike their embryonic counterparts, though, adult stem cells
are painful to harvest and difficult to divide, and their cell lines -- the
sets, or colonies, derived from them -- are generally short-lived.
But the stem cells found at McGill, which seem to be exceptionally
versatile, are easy to generate and simple to collect -- the practical
beauty of the discovery is that it is only skin deep. Miller's study is the
first to claim that a single adult stem cell can give rise to two of three
of the basic classes of cells in the body. The McGill lab is working to
confirm that it can generate cells for all three, and preliminary results
are encouraging, Miller says.
"As a scientist, you're trained not to hope too much," she said. "But on
this project, things keep turning out well."
Most important, in an experiment yet to be published, researchers implanted
neural cells derived from the skin stem cell into rat brains, where they
seemed to meld well with the surrounding tissue and act like the cells
around them. Next, the team will implant the cells in rat brains with
simulated Parkinson's disease to test whether they can help restore brain
Still, it's a far step from rat brains to treatments that will work in human
brains. Although the researchers allowed themselves champagne toasts and a
quick celebration the day their article was published -- after two years of
checking and rechecking their results -- they know that this is just the
They plan to spend the next two years learning how to induce the cells to
become specific types of tissue and how to control their development once
they do. (A neuron derived from a skin cell, for example, needs to remain a
Miller said the researchers also need to duplicate more of their rodent
results with human cells. But the scientists are driven by the hope of
bringing science closer to treatments for spinal cord injuries, juvenile
diabetes, heart disease and brain disorders -- treatments made from
patients' own cells.
According to Miller, the biggest limitation to working with adult stem cells
is that so little is known about them. It was only two years ago that one
researcher in the McGill lab, Jean Toma, asked, Why not look for stem cells
in skin? The dermis is rich in different types of cells, including neural
cells that sense temperature and pressure. It repairs itself quickly without
losing sensation. And it's easy to obtain samples from.
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