Stem cell stories that caught our eye: back repair, stem cell aging, babies for same sex couples, chimeras

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.

0c207-shutterstock_132771389Getting the right cells for back repair.  We often write that stem cells found in fat tissue can form bone, cartilage and other connective tissue. But that glosses over the fact that all those tissues come in many forms. A team in France has found a way to turn fat stem cells into the specific tissue found in the discs in our spine, that when deteriorated, leads to 40 percent of back pain.

The team at the French institute INSERM used two growth factors to turn stem cells from fat into cells called nucleus pulposus that make up the cushioning discs. Yahoo Finance ran a very short piece on the research that the team published in the journal Stem Cells.

 

Bone drug stops stem cell aging.  Doctors regularly use the drug zoledronate to improve the bone strength and extend the lives of patients with osteoporosis, but they don’t know exactly how it works. A team at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. pegged the drug’s role on reducing the natural DNA damage that occurs in the stem cells that build new bone. The drug in essence slows the aging of bone-forming stem cells.

They published their work in the journal Stem Cells and Health Medicine Network posted the university press release in which the authors speculate that the drug might have a similar impact on stem cells that are supposed to repair other tissues as well.

 “The drug enhances the repair of the damage in DNA occurring with age in stem cells in the bone. It is also likely to work in other stem cells too.”

The researchers suggest the drug could have a role in treating heart disease, muscle diseases and other age-related conditions.

 

Babies for same sex couples—not yet.  One recent journal publication contained no new scientific research yet generated many headlines, which often suggested an advance had been made that could allow same sex couples to have a completely biologically related baby. The original article, a review in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, provided a look at the current state of the science of creating eggs and sperm from stem cells and an analysis of the ethical and policy implications of the work.

While the work is fairly advanced in mice, it is at very early stages in humans. Written by Sonia Suter of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the review outlines potential benefits and risks of the process called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). Medical News Today wrote a story from the university press release that quoted Suter:

“The ethical dilemmas about when and how such research should be done will be enormously challenging.”

Despite the many concerns, she suggests that with the strong support for other forms of assisted reproduction, eventually, IVG could be just another routine way to have a baby.

 

Chimeras can tell us about early development.  Another study that got a lot of press for the wrong reasons generated mouse embryos that contained tissue from human stem cells.  Those chimeras—organisms with cells from two species—were reported to prove the safety of pluripotent stem cells, those cells that can become any tissue in the body.

 

gastrula

Human cells (green) in a mouse embryo

The team placed human pluripotent stem cells, either reprogrammed iPS cells or embryonic stem cells, into early stage mouse embryos and saw them correctly turn into the three so-called germ layers that make up all parts of the body.  They only observed the tissue develop for two days, but during that time they saw no indication of tumors or inappropriate cell development.

However, as CIRM grantee Paul Knoepfler wrote in his The Niche blog the behavior of pluripotent stem cells in an early embryo, where you want them to behave like embryonic tissue, may not be relevant to how those cells would behave in an adult patient where it could be disastrous if the cells behaved in an embryonic fashion.

What the work by Victoria Mascetti and Roger Pederson of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. does provide is an elegant new tool to study early human embryonic development.

“Our finding that human stem cells integrate and develop normally in the mouse embryo will allow us to study aspects of human development during a window in time that would otherwise be inaccessible,” Mascetti said in a press release quoted in an article in The Scientist.

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