Stem cell research has contributed to treatments for a variety of conditions and genetic disorders since the late 1980s. These cells, once transplanted into a host body, can transform into nearly any type of cell needed to improve health.
A new study, recently published in the United Kingdom, has taken a look at these cells from their earliest stages of development to help us understand how these cells work and how stem cells could potentially change the field of regenerative medicine.
Umbilical, Embryonic and Expanded Potential Stem Cells
“Stem cell” is a blanket term for a variety of different cells that can be harvested from umbilical cord blood or tissue, placental tissues, from blastocysts or even from earlier stages of development.
Umbilical cord stem cells fall into one of two categories:
1. Hematopietic cells (HCS), which are used as a treatment for more than 80 different disorders and cancers.
2. Meschymal cells (MCS), which can regenerate different types of tissues, but are not currently used as a form of treatment, though they are the subject of more than 50 clinical trials.
Embryonic stem cells are harvested from cells in the blastocyst stage — usually four to five days after fertilization. These cells are harvested from embryos that are created specifically for that use and are not allowed to develop into fetuses. This is often the most controversial form of stem cell research.
Expanded potential stem cells, or EPSC, are harvested even earlier than embryonic stem cells. The fertilized egg is only allowed to divide from four to eight cells before harvested. At this stage, the harvested cells are still able to grow naturally into any cell type. These stem cells have currently only been created and harvested in mice.
Turning Back the Clock
Stem cells are extremely valuable because of their ability to change into nearly any type of cell, but until now, they could not be heavily modified because of their inherent changeability. By harvesting these expanded potential stem cells when they’re only four to eight cells in size, their small size and changeability enables the researchers to literally “turn back the clock” — to turn back the cell’s development to the earliest stages.
The potential for these cells is already astonishing — they’ve been used in lab and preclinical trials to do everything from slowing aging and treating baldness to transforming skin cells into functioning motor neurons in mice.
Additionally, instead of creating one single type of stem cell, these EPSCs actually produce three different types of stem cells, which improves the versatility and viabilities of the cells. These cells could potentially change the way we look at regenerative medicine, and even potentially provide anti-aging treatments for humans.
Beyond the human applications, these stem cells could potentially be used to assist conservationists by supporting the captive breeding of endangered species. The harvested stem cells could be used to generate germ cells such as sperm to enable these conservationists to help keep endangered species alive through artificial insemination.
Bumps in the Road
The study of human EP stem cells has been slow, primarily because of the fear that these cells, once mature, will form tumors in the host tissue. There is also the question of research ethics, which has been asked more than once since stem cell research began. Human stem cells are harvested from potentially viable embryos before they are able to develop. This has sparked many ethical debates, which has slowed down the progress of human stem cell research significantly.
Overall, these new stem cells could potentially help to jump start regenerative medicine because it provides us with a template to study. By studying how these cells form at the earliest stages, we can also gain a better idea of how the human body works — and once you know how something is put together, it’s easier to fix it when it breaks.
It will be a while before we know the full potential of these newly harvested stem cells — and probably even longer before researchers can start harvesting human EPSCs — but these advancements are a big piece of the cellular puzzle that will help us understand how the human body is assembled from its earliest stages.
Kate Harveston is a freelance writer whose work typically covers politics, health care and many other aspects of government policy.
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