Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scientists get easy access to embryonic stem cells

Getting access to embryonic stem cells of human origin has just been made a whole lot easier. A new data bank has been given the task to provide scientists with human embryonic stem cells (hESC), free of charge. This should boost research on this topic, which is not easy to conduct because hESC are hard to obtain, or make. These primitive cells carry high potency for use in the clinic, as they are able to transform into all known tissue types, which we can use for repairing organs.

Cell banking
The stem cell bank is a British initiative, and received two cell lines of hESC a while ago from a research group that spend a long time developing them. A cell line is an immortalized bunch of cells with identical properties, that constantly clone themselves. They were derived from embryos which were no longer used after IVF treatment. Therefore, the bank now has the capability to provide scientists with hESC. The provided cells are derived from two sources, and are supposed to be of high quality: they could be used in the clinic, if scientists develop a novel therapy based on hESC.

Boost to research
Normally, these kind of cells are hard to get. It is only possible to harvest hESC when an embryo is in its early stages. Obtaining cell material from a 'clump' that is able to grow into a complete human being has stirred up some controversy, and research on hESC is outlawed in many countries. The USA only recently overturned this ruling. Free and easy access to stem cells is probably going to boost the number of studies that are being performed on them.

Making stem cells
An alternative to obtaining hESC from 'live' material, is making the cells yourself. It wasn't possible for a long time to make these primitive cells in the lab without an embryo origin: a technique has only been developed very recently, and it is far from being widely deployed in the scientific world. An alternative to using embryonic versions of stem cells is using so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). These cells are almost just as versatile as hESC, but are derived from fully matured skin cells, which are converted back to primitive cells through an ingenious process. Though, it also proved relatively hard to make iPS. But they do have the benefit of not having to sacrifice a viable human embryo. Recently, scientists found a way to make stem cells up to a 100 times faster, which could also serve in making primitive cells widely accessible.

Using stem cells
In some cases, the body is unable to repair sustained damage. This is often found in the nervous system, as the repair mechanisms in our bodies are generally unable to replace neurons. That is why a stroke, for example, often leaves permanent damage. Brain tissue that dies is not replaced by functional tissue, but instead by non-functional scar tissue. Because stem cells have the capability to differentiate into cells under our control, we can let them become neuronal tissue. This can be implanted, after which it is supposed to be functional at the site of damage. So far, only a few usable therapies have been developed, even though the possibilities of stem cells have been hallowed for quite some time. Additionally, most of them are still in development, such as those to treat diabetes, brain diseases or spinal cord injury.

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