Friday, June 8, 2012

Stem Cell Block

Do you remember the fight over stem cell research in the US back during the Bush 43 administration? It was a fight where on one side you had people speculating about what kind of research might be done with embryonic stem cells, and on the other you had people claiming it was immoral to use them because the stem cells might become babies at some point. (Which by the time the stem cells arrive in the lab is no longer a possibility, but that was the argument.)

Well, that aside, we now have something really spiffy to point at on the what-can-stem-cells-do side of the ledger: make an artificial human liver. A team of scientists at Japan's Yokohama City University took some pluripotent (or iPS) stem cells- which you can get from adults as well as embryos- grew them a bit, and then injected them into a mouse's head. That's where the liver grew, according to the report.

Please ignore the implications of growing a liver inside your head.

Obviously, there's more research that's going to need to be done on that. If it works out, though, and it turns out you can reliably make livers from stem cells, that makes things a whole lot easier on doctors who have long faced chronic shortages in organ donation.

But let's say you're on the anti-stem-cell side of the argument. Fine. You don't have a problem with skin cells, do you? You're just shedding those all over the place all the time. You're doing it right now.

Well, stop it, because you might be shedding future brain cells.

That's what a team at the Gladstone Institute at UC-San Francisco managed to accomplish: they injected a single cell, Sox2, into mouse and human skin cells. With the addition of the Sox2 cell, the skin cells gradually turned into brain cells known as neural stem cells (there's that phrase again), and enough of those brain cells strung together were able to create neural networks. This came as a shock to the UCSF team, which was actually trying to put a tumor in the mouse's brain with the neural stem cells.

The implications here, if they can work out the kinks: potentially, an eventual treatment for Alzheimer's disease, which currently has no treatment.

Aside from the possibilities shown just by these two discoveries, we can infer a couple things: first, it may or may not toss a new wrench into the stem-cell debate (remember, the debate revolved around embryonic cells and the types used here don't necessarily have to be); second, mice have the strangest healthcare system.

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