Texans for Cures believes by shining a bright light on the ground breaking research taking place in Texas we will be able to give hope to our fellow Texans living with terminal illnesses and chronic diseases



What are stem cells, and why are they important?

Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive.

When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease.

However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease, which is also referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.


What Are They?

Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics.

First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity.

Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions.

In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.

Until recently, scientists primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells from animals and humans: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic “somatic” or “adult” stem cells.

Scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos nearly 30 years ago, in 1981.

The detailed study of the biology of mouse stem cells led to the discovery, in 1998, of a method to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow the cells in the laboratory. These cells are called human embryonic stem cells. The embryos used in these studies were created for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilization procedures. When they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor.

Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lung, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues.

In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease.


Why Should I Care?

Stem cells have potential in many different areas of health and medical research.

To start with, studying stem cells will help us to understand how they transform into the dazzling array of specialized cells that make us what we are.

Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions.

Another potential application of stem cells is making cells and tissues for medical therapies.

Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace those that are diseased or destroyed. Unfortunately, the number of people needing a transplant far exceeds the number of organs available for transplantation.

Pluripotent stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.


What Can They Do For Disease?

Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells offer enormous medical and scientific potential.

In the future, embryonic stem cells could be used to:

Replace Diseased Cells

If scientists can direct stem cells’ specialization process, they may be able to use embryonic stem cells to treat a wide range of ailments. For example, Parkinson’s disease is a common disorder marked by tremors and loss of muscle control. It is caused by the loss of certain brain cells. Stem cells could be used to replace those lost cells.

In fact, Parkinson’s disease may be one of the first diseases treatable by stem cell transplantation. Early studies confirm that stem cells can be directed to produce the cells needed by Parkinson’s patients.

Stem cells may also be used in the treatment of Type 1 diabetes. Patients suffering from this kind of diabetes have difficulty producing insulin from pancreas cells. Using stem cell transplantation, doctors could someday offer diabetes patients new insulin-forming cells, eliminating the need for insulin injections.

Stem cells could also be used in the treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, liver disease, arthritis , and hair loss.

Better Understand Human Biology

Understanding how humans develop into tremendously complex creatures will help scientists correct “errors” that can happen during this process—for example, cancer or birth defects.

Create Tissue for Medical Therapies

Today, organ transplants give people suffering from certain diseases a new life. But organ donors are in short supply. One day, scientists may be able to use embryonic stem cells to help repair damaged organs or even grow a new organ.


What Are Embryonic Cells?

 Embryonic stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.

The embryos from which human embryonic stem cells are derived are typically four or five days old and are a hollow microscopic ball of cells called the blastocyst.

The blastocyst includes three structures: the trophoblast, which is the layer of cells that surrounds the blastocoel, a hollow cavity inside the blastocyst; and the inner cell mass, which is a group of cells at one end of the blastocoel that develop into the embryo proper.

How are embryonic stem cells grown in the laboratory?

Growing cells in the laboratory is known as cell culture. Human embryonic stem cells are isolated by transferring the inner cell mass into a plastic laboratory culture dish that contains a nutrient broth known as culture medium. The cells divide and spread over the surface of the dish.

The inner surface of the culture dish is typically coated with mouse embryonic skin cells that have been treated so they will not divide. This coating layer of cells is called a feeder layer. The mouse cells in the bottom of the culture dish provide the inner cell mass cells a sticky surface to which they can attach. Also, the feeder cells release nutrients into the culture medium.

Researchers have devised ways to grow embryonic stem cells without mouse feeder cells. This is a significant scientific advance because of the risk that viruses or other macromolecules in the mouse cells may be transmitted to the human cells. The process of generating an embryonic stem cell line is somewhat inefficient, so lines are not produced each time an inner cell mass is placed into a culture dish. However, if the plated inner cell mass cells survive, divide and multiply enough to crowd the dish, they are removed gently and plated into several fresh culture dishes. The process of re-plating or subculturing the cells is repeated many times and for many months. Each cycle of subculturing the cells is referred to as a passage.

Once the cell line is established, the original cells yield millions of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells that have proliferated in cell culture for six or more months without differentiating, are pluripotent, and appear genetically normal are referred to as an embryonic stem cell line. At any stage in the process, batches of cells can be frozen and shipped to other laboratories for further culture and experimentation.

What laboratory tests are used to identify embryonic stem cells?

At various points during the process of generating embryonic stem cell lines, scientists test the cells to see whether they exhibit the fundamental properties that make them embryonic stem cells. This process is called characterization.

Scientists who study human embryonic stem cells have not yet agreed on a standard battery of tests that measure the cells’ fundamental properties. However, laboratories that grow human embryonic stem cell lines use several kinds of tests, including:

* Growing and subculturing the stem cells for many months. This ensures that the cells are capable of long-term growth and self-renewal. Scientists inspect the cultures through a microscope to see that the cells look healthy and remain undifferentiated.

* Using specific techniques to determine the presence of transcription factors that are typically produced by undifferentiated cells. Two of the most important transcription factors are Nanog and Oct4. Transcription factors help turn genes on and off at the right time, which is an important part of the processes of cell differentiation and embryonic development. In this case, both Oct 4 and Nanog are associated with maintaining the stem cells in an undifferentiated state, capable of self-renewal.

* Using specific techniques to determine the presence of paricular cell surface markers that are typically produced by undifferentiated cells.

* Examining the chromosomes under a microscope. This is a method to assess whether the chromosomes are damaged or if the number of chromosomes has changed. It does not detect genetic mutations in the cells.

* Determining whether the cells can be re-grown, or subcultured, after freezing, thawing, and re-plating.

* Testing whether the human embryonic stem cells are pluripotent by 1) allowing the cells to differentiate spontaneously in cell culture; 2) manipulating the cells so they will differentiate to form cells characteristic of the three germ layers; or 3) injecting the cells into a mouse with a suppressed immune system to test for the formation of a benign tumor called a teratoma. Since the mouse’s immune system is suppressed, the injected human stem cells are not rejected by the mouse immune system and scientists can observe growth and differentiation of the human stem cells. Teratomas typically contain a mixture of many differentiated or partly differentiated cell types—an indication that the embryonic stem cells are capable of differentiating into multiple cell types.


What Are Adult Stem Cells

 An adult stem cell is thought to be an undifferentiated cell, found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ that can renew itself and can differentiate to yield some or all of the major specialized cell types of the tissue or organ.

The primary roles of adult stem cells in a living organism are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.

Scientists also use the term somatic stem cell instead of adult stem cell, where somatic refers to cells of the body (not the germ cells, sperm or eggs). Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are defined by their origin (the inner cell mass of the blastocyst), the origin of adult stem cells in some mature tissues is still under investigation.

Research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement. Scientists have found adult stem cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible. This finding has led researchers and clinicians to ask whether adult stem cells could be used for transplants.

In fact, adult hematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cells from bone marrow have been used in transplants for 40 years.

Scientists now have evidence that stem cells exist in the brain and the heart. If the differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled in the laboratory, these cells may become the basis of transplantation-based therapies.

The history of research on adult stem cells began about 50 years ago. In the 1950s, researchers discovered that the bone marrow contains at least two kinds of stem cells. One population, called hematopoietic stem cells, forms all the types of blood cells in the body. A second population, called bone marrow stromal stem cells (also called mesenchymal stem cells, or skeletal stem cells by some), were discovered a few years later. These non-hematopoietic stem cells make up a small proportion of the stromal cell population in the bone marrow, and can generate bone, cartilage, fat, cells that support the formation of blood, and fibrous connective tissue.

In the 1960s, scientists who were studying rats discovered two regions of the brain that contained dividing cells that ultimately become nerve cells. Despite these reports, most scientists believed that the adult brain could not generate new nerve cells. It was not until the 1990s that scientists agreed that the adult brain does contain stem cells that are able to generate the brain’s three major cell types—astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, which are non-neuronal cells, and neurons, or nerve cells.

Where are adult stem cells found, and what do they normally do?

Adult stem cells have been identified in many organs and tissues, including brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin, teeth, heart, gut, liver, ovarian epithelium, and testis. They are thought to reside in a specific area of each tissue (called a “stem cell niche”).

In many tissues, current evidence suggests that some types of stem cells are pericytes, cells that compose the outermost layer of small blood vessels. Stem cells may remain quiescent (non-dividing) for long periods of time until they are activated by a normal need for more cells to maintain tissues, or by disease or tissue injury.

Typically, there is a very small number of stem cells in each tissue, and once removed from the body, their capacity to divide is limited, making generation of large quantities of stem cells difficult. Scientists in many laboratories are trying to find better ways to grow large quantities of adult stem cells in cell culture and to manipulate them to generate specific cell types so they can be used to treat injury or disease.

Some examples of potential treatments include regenerating bone using cells derived from bone marrow stroma, developing insulin-producing cells for type 1 diabetes, and repairing damaged heart muscle following a heart attack with cardiac muscle cells.
What tests are used for identifying adult stem cells?

Scientists often use one or more of the following methods to identify adult stem cells: (1) label the cells in a living tissue with molecular markers and then determine the specialized cell types they generate; (2) remove the cells from a living animal, label them in cell culture, and transplant them back into another animal to determine whether the cells replace (or “repopulate”) their tissue of origin. Importantly, it must be demonstrated that a single adult stem cell can generate a line of genetically identical cells that then gives rise to all the appropriate differentiated cell types of the tissue. To confirm experimentally that a putative adult stem cell is indeed a stem cell, scientists tend to show either that the cell can give rise to these genetically identical cells in culture, and/or that a purified population of these candidate stem cells can repopulate or reform the tissue after transplant into an animal.

What are the key questions about adult stem cells?

Many important questions about adult stem cells remain to be answered. They include:

* How many kinds of adult stem cells exist, and in which tissues do they exist?

* How do adult stem cells evolve during development and how are they maintained in the adult? Are they “leftover” embryonic stem cells, or do they arise in some other way?

* Why do stem cells remain in an undifferentiated state when all the cells around them have differentiated? What are the characteristics of their “niche” that controls their behavior?

* Do adult stem cells have the capacity to transdifferentiate, and is it possible to control this process to improve its reliability and efficiency?

* If the beneficial effect of adult stem cell transplantation is a trophic effect, what are the mechanisms? Is donor cell-recipient cell contact required, secretion of factors by the donor cell, or both?

* What are the factors that control adult stem cell proliferation and differentiation?

* What are the factors that stimulate stem cells to relocate to sites of injury or damage, and how can this process be enhanced for better healing?


What Does The Future Hold?

 Stem cell research is one of the most fascinating areas of contemporary biology, but, as with many expanding fields of scientific inquiry, research on stem cells raises scientific questions as rapidly as it generates new discoveries.

There are many ways in which human stem cells can be used in research and the clinic. Studies of human embryonic stem cells will yield information about the complex events that occur during human development. A primary goal of this work is to identify how undifferentiated stem cells become the differentiated cells that form the tissues and organs. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is central to this process. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation.

A more complete understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy.

Human stem cells could be used to test new drugs.

For example, new medications could be tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human pluripotent cell lines. Other kinds of cell lines are already used in this way. Cancer cell lines, for example, are used to screen potential anti-tumor drugs. The availability of pluripotent stem cells would allow drug testing in a wider range of cell types.

Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies.

Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.


Does Texas Have Research Now?

 The following locations are currently performing research or trials in Texas.

Texas A&M University Mesenchymal Stem Cell Distribution Prepares and distributes well-characterized marrow stromal cells (MSCs) derived from adult human and rodent bone marrow using standardized protocols.

Texas Heart Institute Stem Cell Center Dedicated to the study of adult stem cells and their role in treating cardiovascular disease, including clinical trials (in human patients), as well as many preclinical studies (in the laboratory) using stem cells.

ClinicalTrial.gov A registry of federally and privately supported clinical trials conducted in the United States and around the world. ClinicalTrials.gov gives you information about a trial’s purpose, who may participate, locations, and phone numbers for more details. This information should be used in conjunction with advice from health care professionals.

Clinical Trials at MD Anderson Cancer Center The Houston, Texas based Cancer Center is involved in many exiciting trials.

Institute for Regenerative Medicine The goal of the IRM is to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical translation in the field of regenerative medicine and experimental cell therapeutics. Through active collaboration between basic scientists and clinicians in Central Texas, the IRM hopes to tackle the ambitious task of discovering novel therapies for intractable diseases to relieve human suffering.



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