The religious and ethical concerns over harvesting embryonic stem cells has meant that stem cell research has been slow to develop, something that is much to our detriment because it is through the adaptability of cells like embryonic stem cells that we might one day find ways to cure cancers and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
With the importance of such research in mind, creative scientists are finding new alternatives and ways to generate embryonic-like stem cells. One such way is through creating what are known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are artificially generated by converting older, already specialized cells taken from adult donors and effectively regressing them to their more adaptable infancy.
A stumbling block to this has been that harvesting such cells has often required invasive tissue or bone marrow sampling and a laborious lab process which puts most medical applications, at least for the time being, out of reach. However, scientists are now starting to see encouraging results from the process of using bodily fluids, like a patient’s own blood and urine, from which to engineer those coveted iPS cells.
Stem Cells Engineered from Blood
In a study published this week in the journal Stem Cells: Translational Medicine, a research team at the University of Cambridge tells how scientists have been able to generate iPS cells from patient blood samples.
Previously, cells have been harvested through tissue biopsies, but for young children and the elderly this kind of process can be distressing. However, taking a blood sample is much more routine and painless.
Scientists in this study were able to isolate “late outgrowth endothelial progenitor” cells from the blood samples they had taken. They were then able to turn those cells into iPS cells. This might not sound like a big deal, but in the future those cells could be turned into any other cell in the body, including blood vessel cells or heart cells, opening the pathway to potentially generating replacement tissues and perhaps even cures for severe and fatal heart conditions and more.
This isn’t the first time these embryonic-like stem cells have been created from a blood sample, but this new study is the first to outline a practical method that could be used in workaday labs.
Shannon Amoils, Research Advisor at the British Heart Foundation, which also backed the study, says in a press release: “iPS cells offer great potential – both for the study and potentially the future treatment of cardiovascular diseases. As iPS cells are made from the patient’s own tissue, they can be used to study diseases and hopefully one day to repair damaged tissue without being attacked by the body’s immune system.
“Being able to efficiently produce iPS cells using cells from a blood sample will make it easier for researchers to push this technology forward. But there are still many hurdles to overcome before this kind of technique could be used to treat patients.”
Engineering iPS Cells from Urine
Using blood isn’t the only possible way to generate iPS cells however. Scientists are also turning to pee — yes, urine — for its potential.
A recently released study in Nature Protocols tells how research teams from China have been able to create iPS cells from exfoliated renal epithelial cells that are present in urine. This has the advantage in that it is, again, another easy method through which to gain a working sample. As the study overview notes, this method has several other benefits too:
This method is advantageous in many circumstances, as the isolation of urinary cells is simple (30 ml of urine are sufficient), cost-effective and universal (can be applied to any age, gender and race). Moreover, the entire procedure is reasonably quick–around 2 weeks for the urinary cell culture and 3-4 weeks for the reprogramming–and the yield of iPSC colonies is generally high–up to 4% using retroviral delivery of exogenous factors.
Other research has already demonstrated that urine-derived iPS cells can be used to create urethra-like tissue though, at this stage, its human applications are still untested.
While both of the above are incredibly encouraging steps in this vitally important area of science, those breakthroughs still seem a way off. What about today? Encouragingly, current research suggests that we may soon be able to use stem cells to treat conditions like deafness, blindness and perhaps even strokes.
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