Sunday, December 2, 2012

Making stem cells out of urine

Stem cells are controversial, but the reason for their controversy is slowly being eliminated as science progresses. In the early days, stem cells were gathered from embryos, but nowadays, we can create them ourselves; we are capable of 'reverting' ordinary cells back to a stem cell status, after which they are capable of self-renewal and become any kind of tissue that exists in the body. It is possible to revert skin cells back to stem cells, but scientists have now found a way to make it even easier: kidney cells found in urine are suitable for being transformed to functional stem cells.

A group of Austrian and Chinese scientists detailed their method in a recent publication, and argue that they have found a cost-effective way to isolate the required cells and transform them into stem cells. Apparently, urine does not only contain waste products, but also cells from the kidney. Somehow these cells 'flushed' through the kidney's 'pipes' to end up in the urine. Specifically, the scientists isolated renal epithelial cells, which cover the outer lining of the tubules that govern fluid transport.

Just 30ml of urine is sufficient to gather enough cells for the procedure. The cells are isolated by lab procedures and put into a culture system. Then, a special technique that works by genetic modification results in the generation of multifunctional stem cells. Inserting a few specific genes into the genome of the cells results in a radical change in 'behaviour', which basically causes reversal back to stem cell mode. This technique was pioneered by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, and he was awarded this year's Nobel prize for it. According to the researchers, the time needed to make stem cells is around two weeks to put the cells in culture, and another 3-4 weeks for the genetic modification. The procedure transforms around 4% of the cells, which may not sound like much, but it is actually quite effective.

This is not the first method that allows for lab-grown stem cells. Despite that, this new technique reveals that the sources for stem cell potential are vast and probably not that well explored. If we can find suitable cells in urine, then it surely is possible to find them elsewhere too. This is useful information if we want to cure patients by using their own cells. For that, we need healthy cells, and they are not always easy to come by in patients suffering from a disease. 

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