Game-changing Advance in Stem Cell Science

Advancement could lead to new treatments for a variety of incurable diseases

(RxWiki News) Stem cell research holds the promise of changing the entire field of medicine. But research has been hampered because scientists haven't found a way to produce enough cells that can be studied safely.

Now the game has changed with the discovery of a way to create stable cells from human embryonic stem cells that can be directed to grow, duplicate themselves and become many types of neurons (nerve cells).

This huge advancement can produce cells for use in clinical trials to test new treatments for a variety of incurable diseases.

"Stem cell research on the verge of exploring new treatments for incurable diseases of the nervous system."

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are so promising because of their ability to become any kind of cell needed to repair and restore damaged tissues. But the potential of hESCs has been restricted by a number of practical problems, including the difficulty of growing sufficient quantities of stable, usable cells and the risk that some of those cells might form tumors.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco and colleagues made this discovery.

According to Kang Zhang, MD, PhD, professor of ophthalmology and human genetics at Shiley Eye Center and director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine, both at UC San Diego, scientists can now generate great quantities – millions in less than a week – of clinical grade cells that can be used in trials and, eventually, for clinical treatments.

Zhang explains,“You can generate neurons for specific conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease or, in the case of my particular research area, eye-specific neurons that are lost in macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa or glaucoma.”

“And in principle, by altering the combination of small molecules, you may be able to create other types of stem cells capable of becoming heart, pancreas, or muscle cells, to name a few,” Zhang added.

These findings will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Study

  • Neural stem cells were produced by adding small molecules in a way that makes hESCs become primitive neural precursor cells, but then halts the further differentiation process (becoming a particular kind of cell)
  • By adding other chemicals, the scientists are able to then direct the precursor cells to turn into different types of mature neurons
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Review Date: 
April 28, 2011
Last Updated:
April 29, 2011