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  • Writer's pictureSBE VIT

From Stem Cell to Any Cell

You’ve heard about stem cells in the news, and perhaps you’ve wondered if they might help you or a loved one with a serious disease. You may wonder what stem cells are, how they’re being used to treat disease and injury, and why they’re the subject of such vigorous debate.

Stem cells are the body’s raw materials — cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Under the right conditions in the body or a laboratory, stem cells divide to form more cells called daughter cells.

These daughter cells either become new stem cells (self-renewal) or become specialized cells (differentiation) with a more specific function, such as blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle cells or bone cells. No other cell in the body has the natural ability to generate new cell types.

These are some of the major breakthroughs in this field:

First, the treatment of severe pain using stem cells has been successful and the researchers are now moving towards human trials. Researchers at the University of Sydney have used human stem cells to make pain-killing neurons that provide lasting relief in mice, without side effects, in a single treatment. “Nerve injury can lead to devastating neuropathic pain and for the majority of patients there are no effective therapies. This breakthrough means for some of these patients, we could make pain-killing transplants from their own cells, and the cells can then reverse the underlying cause of pain.” The team used human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) derived from bone marrow to make pain-killing cells in the lab then put them into the spinal cord of mice with serious neuropathic pain. The next step is to perform extensive safety tests in rodents and pigs, and then move to human patients suffering chronic pain within the next five years. If the tests are successful in humans, it could be a major breakthrough in the development of new non-opioid, non-addictive pain management strategies for patients.

Second, Blind people can have their vision restored using stem cells from deceased organ donors. Millions of blind people could have their vision actually restored using stem cells taken from the eyes of non-living donors, according to new research from Scotland. Thanks to the pioneering tissue transplant, eight patients with a common condition that destroys vision have had the affected area repaired—and two were able to read again after having severe macular degeneration.

The revolutionary treatment may lead to a cure for blindness caused by damage to the cornea – the protective surface of the eye. It often becomes clouded in older people through injury or infection. In more underdeveloped countries, children and younger people are also increasingly prone. The study published focused on limbal stem cells, which are typically lacking in patients suffering from corneal blindness. The cells lie in the the top layer of the cornea, the epithelium, and act as a barrier against dust and germs. Without this tissue the cornea becomes irregular, destroying vision and leaving the eye prone to infection. It can result from damage caused by chemicals, heat, or a disease called aniridia, which can lead to scarring and severe vision loss in eyes as well as chronic pain and redness. Normal healthy corneas are transparent – but when these specialized cells are lost, the cornea becomes scarred and blurred. As a means of repairing the cornea, the team used samples from people who had donated their eyes after death in order to grow the stem cells.

Image credit: Reversing blindness with stem cells, nature

Third and the most recent one, first stem cell models of human Spine development has been created. More than 20 years ago, the lab of developmental biologist Olivier Pourquié discovered a sort of cellular clock in chicken embryos where each “tick” stimulates the formation of a structure called a somite that ultimately becomes a vertebra. In the ensuing years, he further illuminated the mechanics of this so-called segmentation clock across many organisms, including creation of the first models of the clock in a lab dish using mouse cells. While the work has improved knowledge of normal and abnormal spine development, no one has been able to confirm whether the clock exists in humans–until now. He led one of two teams that have now created the first lab-dish models of the segmentation clock using stem cells derived from adult human tissue.

The achievements not only provide the first evidence that the segmentation clock ticks in humans but also give the scientific community the first in vitro systems enabling the study of very early spine development in humans. The models open new doors for understanding developmental conditions of the spine, such as congenital scoliosis, as well as diseases involving tissues that arise from the same region of the embryo, known as the paraxial mesoderm. These include skeletal muscle and brown fat in the entire body, as well as bones, skin and lining of blood vessels in the trunk and back. The researchers will be able to use the new stem cell models to generate differentiated tissue for research and clinical applications, such as skeletal muscle cells to study muscular dystrophy and brown fat cells to study type II diabetes. Such work would provide a foundation for devising new treatments.

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