Stem cell stories that caught our eye: heart stem cells, lizard tails and mapping progress in the field

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Could cells in arteries be elusive heart stem cells?
Our hearts have a modest limited ability to regenerate and repair themselves, suggesting we must have a few heart stem cells. But no one has figured out where those cells hang out. Now, a team at Vanderbilt in Nashville has shown that cells in the lining of the heart’s arteries can contribute to new heart muscle.

They made the discovery using a labeling technique that let them tag those cells, called endothelial cells, and show that the same tag showed up in new muscle in the heart. This suggests those cells have the properties of heart stem cells.

The finding also suggests that coronary heart disease, where plaque builds up inside the arteries, could damage the heart with a one-two-punch. Besides narrowing the artery it may also make it more difficult to mobilize these heart stem cells that reside inside the artery lining. The research published in Cell Reports was written up by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

Secrets of the lizard’s tail. Most folks who have spent any time watching nature programing on TV have seen the handy trick of the green anole lizard. If a predator catches it by the tail it can shed its tail and grow a new one. A team at Arizona State University has uncovered the genetic recipe for how the lizard pulls off this trick.

anole_5They analyzed various segments of tails as they were regrowing to see which genes were turned on that would not normally be turned on in adult tissue. They identified 325 genes. The beauty of the finding is 302 of those genes have matching genes in humans. Those genes become immediate candidates for research into finding ways to allow humans to regrow lost or damaged tissue.

Discover did a nice job of explaining how this lizard is a better model for human comparisons than other animals such as salamanders and fish that can also regrow body parts but use a very different process. And the university press release offers a bit more detail of what the team did.

Review maps where the field is going. Six leaders in the stem cell field wrote a review in the journal Science this week of what to expect in the next few years from research with pluripotent stem cells—those stem cells that can become any tissue in the body, both embryonic stem cells and reprogrammed iPS type stem cells. The authors included researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin.

The main hurdles researchers are working to overcome involve maturing the stem cells to the right adult tissue, making sure they are purely those cells, and getting them to integrate with the patient’s own tissue after transplant. They note progress is each of these areas, but in most cases much more work needs to be done.

The University of Rochester put out a press release detailing their faculty member’s contribution to the paper focusing on neural diseases. He suggests that complex diseases that impact multiple types of cells, such as Alzheimer’s, would be the most difficult to treat with stem cells. But diseases impacting a single type of nerve cell, such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis would be the first to benefit from cells generated from pluripotent stem cells. HealthCanal picked up the university’s release.

Don Gibbons

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