Stemcells: Therapy Thanks to a Chopstick Accident

18. December 2006

It sounds like an anecdote, but once you take a closer look, you see, it's a small sensation: neuronal stem cells can be hatched relatively effortless to renew damaged organ material - from tissue originating from the damaged brain. New therapies are coming closer and closer.

At first, it was a drama for the patient. A chain of unlucky eating habits caused a chopstick to bore through a woman's eye directly into the inner pre-frontal Cortex. The emergency doctors acted fast and correct: They took the patient straight to the . Huashan Shanghai Hospital, were surgeons could have taken care of her accordingly with the necessary routine – normally. But things went different – and in this particular case – better than you would think.

Because the physician Zhu Jianhong, who work at the Chinese Fudan University, was supposed to make the surgery. But he ventured an extraordinary stem cell experiment. From the tissue on the removed chopstick Zhu isolated those cells he believed to be potential adult stem cells. The fact, that cells to repair body tissue are available in the heart muscle, was public knowledge for Zhu. But his question was: Why should those life savers not be in the brain as well? The cell culture brought the answer: Round about 4% of the cells found on the chopstick were adult stem cells, quite a bit more than Zhu had hoped for.

Reprogramming of neural stem cells

The inner pre-frontal Cortex has advanced to the most thrilling bio reactor of the human body. Indeed, the following experiments Zhu made after that observation seem to confirm that thesis. Of a total of 22 patients hospitalized with an open skull injury, the team around Zhu was able to salvage the therapeutic cargo from the body's own brain tissue from 16 patients after all. The research published now in the New England Journal of Medicine might open the door to a new era of stem cell research. The adult stem cells recovered from neuronal tissue allow the way around the ethical problem, each and every scientist working in the field of embryonic stem cell research has to deal with. And body's own stem cells promise an enormous therapeutic advantage. Physicians can hatch as many as need be outside of the body's patient and then inject them back into the organism – without the patient's immune system starting an attack against the therapeutic cells.

But there might be yet another ace up the sleeve. The fields of application might be a whole lot more than expected. Dennis Steindler of the McKnight Brain Research Institute of the Florida University, achieved to program adult stem cells to which could become neural- as well as Glia cells in large reverse the development and become neuronal progenitor cells, quantities – an absolute novelty.

About Men and Mice

The researchers analyzed embryonic stem cells of mice in a test-tube and applied the cognitions on adult human stem cells. They wanted to see, whether those adult cells can be made reacting similar as embryonic stem cells and develop into different cell types or to differentiate. With the help of specific growth factors and cell culture techniques, they achieved to go back one step in development and to commute adult neural cells to so-called progenitor cells, which could develop into neural- as well as Glia cells. And here we go again: Researcher could take cells from the brain, hatch them in the lab in any quantity and implant them back. Perhaps, for example Parkinson patients could be treated like that some time in the future. It could also be possible to test medications and drugs in a test-tube by using those isolated cells – prior to the patient's therapy.

Those perspectives convinced the Chinese Zhu to start with animal experiments. But the actual breakthrough was made, when Zhu was allowed to treat 8 patients with severe skull injuries with his new method. He took cell material from the open wound in the head of the patient and hatched an according quantity of therapeutic stem cells. Then he injected them into the damaged brain tissue of the patient – and he observed a rapid and significant regeneration of the damaged brain area.

What is looking a bit like faith healing, is really just the consequence of complex processes, which mechanisms are still not fully unlocked. But one thing appears to be sure – the injected stem cells are simply doing their job in the organism – they tackle the repair of the damaged tissue.

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