Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Hair stem cells, amniotic fluid cells for repair and fixing kids’ faulty genes

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.

With hair, lose a few to grow more.
A team at the University of Southern California has shown that if you pull out a couple hundred hairs in just the right pattern you could trigger a thousand or more hairs to grow. It is the latest example of several we have written about that show stem cells react very acutely to their environment.

The researcher had known that hair follicle injury affects the adjacent environment and that environment can influence hair growth. They teamed up with a University of California, Irvine, expert on “quorum sensing,” a field that the USC press release defined as “how a system responds to stimuli that affects some, but not all members”. They tested various patterns of hair follicle damage caused by plucking hairs on the back of a mouse. They eventually found the pattern and spacing that turned the 200 hairs loss into a thousand-strand gain.

The stem cells that reside at the base of hair follicles are a common tool for studying stem cell behavior because they are easy to get at. And while this work could eventually produce real cosmetic benefits for folks follicularly challenged like myself, the real payoff could come from finding similar quorum affects in stem cells in other organs, which the senior researcher, Cheng-Ming Chuong, notes in the release picked up by Epoch Times:

“The implication of the work is that parallel processes may also exist in the physiological or pathogenic processes of other organs, although they are not as easily observed as hair regeneration.”

Baby’s amniotic fluid as source of repairs. The amniotic fluid that surrounds a growing baby carries cells shed by the fetus that doctors use to diagnose problems, but it also has some valuable stem cells, actually a few types of stem cells. Even though those cells are characteristically adult stem cells, because they have recently crossed the line from embryo to adult, they seem to be more versatile than adult stem cells, and since they match the baby could be the perfect cell for repairing birth defects.

Mature blood vessels form after two weeks in a mouse, with red blood cells flowing at the bottom right.

Mature blood vessels form after two weeks in a mouse, with red blood cells flowing at the bottom right.

Scientists at Rice University and Texas Children’s hospital have reported that when you seed those stem cells into the gel scaffolds commonly used for tissue engineering, the resulting tissues do a better job of growing blood vessels. And without the nutrients brought by new vessels, repair tissues will not survive. They now hope to use this new technique in their ongoing efforts to grow heart muscle patches for children born with heart defects.

The university’s press release was picked up by ScienceDaily. It looks like the fluid and cells normally thrown away after a prenatal test, might become a valuable resource.

Genetically correcting childhood disease.
Last week Stanford organized a multi-day symposium called Childx with an impressive array of speakers from around the world talking about how to improve child health. It ended with a special session on the rapid advances being made by combining stem cell science and gene therapy.

“It’s not just science fiction anymore,” Stanford’s Matthew Porteus, told the audience. “We can correct mutations that cause childhood disease.”

The university’s Scope blog summed up the session in a post this week. It discusses progress in sickle cell anemia, severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) and epidermolysis bullosa, among others. The piece also has a voice from industry cautioning that many hurdles remain before any of these therapies can be scaled up to broad use.

But my email this morning had a potent reminder that enough scientists are getting on this bandwagon to make it happen. The subject line of a sales pitch was “Boost transduction with 20 % off Lentiviral Particles,” which referred to the viral units used to carry genes into cells hoping they with take up residence there and function, aka transduction.

CIRM has bet big on this avenue of research investing more than $110 million in nine projects that combine stem cells and gene manipulation and are either in the clinic or soon will be. We will be launching a new series of posts on “Genes + Cells” next week.

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