Scientist holding white laboratory mouse (mus musculus) in hands

Stem Cells Ease the Pain of Spinal Cord Injuries in Mice

A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco has found that neural stem cells can help alleviate the nerve pain and bladder issues caused by spinal injuries.

Patients who suffer spinal injuries often have to deal with numbness, loss of bladder control, and associated side effects of their paralysis. In part, this is due to overactive spinal cord circuits, which can cause pain and decrease quality of life.

In this particular study, a spinal injury was induced in mice, and two weeks later the stem cell treatments were tested. Instead of focusing on the site of the injury, researchers focused on areas where the spinal circuits were at their most active. These cells dispersed, and were integrated into the spinal cord. Because embryonic stem cells from humans rather than mice were used, this allowed them to see how the cells may act if the study is extended to human subjects.

By using a special paper in their cage lining, scientists were able to see where and how often the mice had urinated. After the treatment, the mice had fewer large spots, showing greater control over their bladders. They also showed signs of being in less pain, and exhibited less scratching behaviour – a chronic itch can be a side effect of spinal injuries.

Many patients with spinal injuries rely on a cocktail of drugs, from painkillers to antidepressants, as well as medicines to help them control their bladder. Unfortunately, each of these drugs comes with its own side effect, and they cannot always be relied on in the long term.

In the last few months, there have been several stories from across the world of stem cell treatments. Ajan Reginald, CEO of Celixir, compiled some of the highest profile updates in a recent blog post, and this included the story of a quadriplegic who had regained movement in his arms. While many of these stories focus on recovery from paralysis, the team at University of California, San Francisco are focused more on improving quality of life for spinal injury patients, and looking for alternatives to the usual prescription painkillers.

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New Research Provides Insight into How Cancers Develop

Cancer cells - 3d RenderingA study carried out by Cancer Research UK has shown that cancers need a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions to be able to develop.

Carried out at the Cambridge Institute, this research gives a clearer picture than ever before of why and how cancers develop, and why some organs are more likely to develop the disease. This research could prove invaluable in learning how to prevent and best treat many different kinds of cancer.

The researched focused on the role of stem cells, which replicate to repair damage, or create other cells that the body needs. Certain stem cells can end up with random mistakes in their DNA, or certain environmental factors can increase the likelihood of these mistakes. This includes things like smoking, drinking, and obesity – all things that we’ve long know increase the risk of cancer.

When damaged stem cells are ‘sleeping’, no cancer develops, so the stem cells with DNA mistakes aren’t able to cause cancer alone. The problem begins when these cells with DNA mistakes start to replicate, to repair some sort of damage or wear and tear. The ‘faulty’ stem cells then develop into a cancer.

For a patient to develop a cancer, there has to be a ‘perfect storm’ of factors at play. There has to be something in the body that needs to be healed, plus the stem cells with DNA mistakes to begin replicating. That’s why certain areas where the stem cells are most active, such as the colon, are common sites for cancer.

One scientific debate that this study aims to resolve is whether cancer is just down to bad luck, or whether environmental and lifestyle factors have a greater proportion of blame. The study showed that cancer requires three separate things in order to grow; tissue damage, stem cell DNA mutations, and the activation of these mutated stem cells.

Some other findings in the study included the fact that DNA mistakes in stem cells build up as you get older, which accounts for the risk of cancer being higher as you age.

To carry out the study, researchers used mice that had modified cells which produced a fluorescent green protein when ‘switched on’. This allowed them to track what happened to the cells in various organs and at different stages of their lives. For example, when the mice had damaged livers, researchers were able to see the cells divide rapidly and tumours formed.

By being able to replicate how cancers are formed, this could open up the potential of cancer research, and mean that preventative medicines and new treatments could be coming to the market.

Stem Cells Repair Damaged Mouse Brain

2bf872ea-8e7d-4738-a859-f7b7d687fb07A recent study has used stem cells to repair damaged mouse brains, and this could give hope to stroke patients and those with other neurological conditions.

Lead by professors from the University of Southern California, the study is part of an ongoing effort to find ways to use stem cells on patients whose brains have been damaged by strokes and similar conditions. This particular experiment involved repairing the brain by creating new neurons, which was achieved by identifying damaged areas, and grafting healthy, human skin cells onto them.

Another method that was used involved creating a compound called 3K3A-APC.  When added to neural stem cells in a petri dish, this protein allowed stem cells to grow into neutrons. Although the experiment was carried out with animal brains, it may later be developed into a treatment suitable for humans. Researchers found that combining this protein was more effective than stem cell treatment alone, and created more ‘functional connections’.

To stimulate the effects of a stroke, researchers cut off blood flow to certain areas of the mice’s brains, and then allowed the damage to develop over a week. In human terms, this would be the equivalent of having a stroke and not seeking treatment for several months, with late treatment often making the effects of a stroke so much worse.

Stem cell research has long tried to help stroke victims, especially those whose outlook has been bleak in the past. Back in June, we reported that a study at Stanford’s University School of Medicine had seen amazing results with wheelchair bound patients who were injected with stem cells. This particular study even saw people confined to wheelchairs being able to walk again, while others reported greatly improved mobility.

The treatments pioneered in the Stanford study involved injecting infant stem cells, which helped damaged areas ‘reset’ themselves, and start to heal. Therefore, there could be many ways in future that stem cells might be used to improve the lives of stroke victims.

In addition to those suffering strokes, recent stem cell studies have also looked at treating those with degenerative conditions that otherwise might not have had hope in the past. Illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease see sufferers deteriorate over time, with very little in the way of treatments that can be offered. However, if stem cells have the potential to help stroke victims, then breakthroughs for other conditions could be close behind.

Companies such as Celixir Ltd, headed by CEO Ajan Reginald are undertaking clinical trials for many pioneering stem cell treatments. This includes treatments for individuals with heart disease and the repair of damaged tendons.

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Will Brexit Affect the UK’s Stem Cell Research?

On the 24th June, the UK made the historic decision to leave the EU, and many industries are still waiting to see how this will impact them. Some of the scientific community reacted quickly and with gloom, with the former EU science advisor Anne Glover telling Science Mag that she was ‘very pessimistic’. While it’s still early days, and difficult to predict what will happen in the long term with regards to stem cell research, here are a few areas that might be affected.

Funding

The European Research Council provides funding across the EU to a wide variety of research projects. For the period of 2014-2020, the ERC’s budget is €13.1 billion, with 34% of that budget earmarked for life sciences, including Cellular and Developmental Biology. As it stands, the UK hosts more researchers with starting, consolidator, and advanced grants from the ERC than any other member state.

Leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily mean the UK will lose access to these grants, as people of any nationality can apply for them, but we may need to pay for inclusion. While we are currently a major beneficiary of the ERC, the UK could find themselves struggling, much like non-EU members Switzerland, for inclusion in further schemes.

Over at the Department for Business Innovation and skills, an unnamed official told the BBC that his team were looking at ways to fill in potential shortfalls. “They are trying to gather information on what are the areas of research that depend most on European funding and what the priority areas should be.”

Partnerships with the EU

Science minister Jo Johnson has provided a more positive picture of the effects of Brexit, and in speech given at the Royal Society of Biology he claimed that world-class research ‘will endure’, as we are still part of the European Research Area. His speech also covered the impact of leaving the EU on current students who may be studying science related subjects in the UK, stating that they would still receive student finance.

Others were less optimistic about the result and the impact it might have on research networks. Scientists for EU was set up to campaign for the remain side, and have been vocal about the impact that leaving will have on partnerships and research agreements. They have argued that even as an Associate Member of the EU, the UK might struggle to regain its current position in the ‘political union’.

EU scientists working in the UK

Immigration was a big talking point in the run up to the referendum, and leaving the EU could make it harder for scientists from abroad to work and study here. At the moment, there’s no immediate impact, but schemes such as Erasmus+, which is an exchange program for EU students, will have to be reviewed.

During the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, many in the pro-leave camp suggested a points based system. Therefore, those working in specialist professions such as scientists and researchers might fare better than unskilled workers.

Stem cell regulations

Different EU countries have different regulations when it comes to stem cells. For example, Germany and Italy have strict laws about the use of embryonic stem cells, while the UK has comparatively liberal laws. This means that the UK has become a leader in stem cell research, and UK scientists shouldn’t see their work disrupted by Brexit. However, it does mean that EU scientists who planned to carry out their research in the UK may struggle in future if restrictions on movement are put in place.

We may not know for a while what the long-term effects of leaving the EU will have on stem cell research, or scientific research in general. A report by the Commons Select Committee titled ‘Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research’ will be published in the coming months, and this should tell us more. Whichever way you look at it, there could be a period of uncertainty ahead in terms of stem cell research.

‘Mini Organs’ Grown from Stem Cells Could Personalise Treatments For Cystic Fibrosis Patients

bd1487ce-3935-457e-830e-022a0318f97aTreatments for illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis could soon become more personalised, thanks to a technique that grows organoids from stem cells.

When being treated for serious illnesses, many patients will suffer side effects from their medication, and it’s not always possible to predict how the body will react, or how effective treatment will be. By taking a sample of stem cells, researchers at University Medical Centre Utrecht have been able to grow ‘mini organs’ known as organoids. They can then test different drug combinations on these organoids, and see how they react.

These experiments give doctors a much clearer picture of how effective certain treatments will be. It means that they don’t have to rely on the results of clinical trials, and can personalise medicine to each patient’s needs. This is especially helpful in cases of Cystic Fibrosis, where there often aren’t enough patients to carry out effective studies.

So far, doctors in the Netherlands have treated 1,500 patients with this technique, and have successfully helped many cystic fibrosis sufferers. It’s also beginning to be utilised in cancer cases.

Only one biopsy is needed to harvest the stem cells, and the same sample can be used over and over, which means fewer tests for the patient. Not only can they build one organoid and run tests, but researchers can build an entire mini-system to see how different organs might react to various medicines.

Professor Dr Kors van der Ent, who is heading the research, told the Daily Express “Some of these patients were waiting for lung transplants, but can now be found on the hockey pitch again thanks to the right medication. Their lives have completely changed.”

This news again shows the potential that stem cells have to treat diseases, and give patients a better quality of life.

Wheelchair Bound Stroke Survivors Walk Again After Stem Cell Treatment

point to the imaging area. Doctor and CT-scan.

A stem cell study, based at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, has shown some incredible results in treating paralysed and wheelchair-bound stroke patients.

A small group of 18 patients underwent ground-breaking medical procedures in which a hole was drilled into their skull, with stem cells injected into certain damaged areas of the brain. Patients in the study included people whose strokes had occurred six months to three years before the procedure, as this is often regarded by doctors as being past the point where the brain can regenerate and heal itself.

By injecting stem cells into damaged areas of the brain, the theory was that the adult brain would ‘reset’ itself back to an infant brain, and could then start to heal from the trauma of a stroke. Children’s brains often heal well after a traumatic injury or event such as a stroke, and by using stem cells from donor bone marrow, researchers were able to make adult brains heal themselves in the same way.

The results were better than anticipated. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, the Chair of Neurosurgery, Professor Gary Steinberg said:

““This wasn’t just ‘they couldn’t move their thumb and now they can’. Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now. Their ability to move around has recovered visibly. That’s unprecedented.”

This simple procedure was carried out under local anaesthetic, with patients able to go home the next day. Short-term side effects were no more serious than a headache, and so far no long-term side effects have been noted. The injections were carried out two years ago, and since then none of the patients have had a relapse.

Not only does this procedure have the potential to help many stroke victims, who in the past may not have had much hope of recovery, but also those who have suffered life-changing brain injuries, and those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s. These conditions often see sufferers facing a bleak future, but stem cell therapy could offer them a ray of hope.

Could Stem Cell Therapy Be Used for Hard to Treat Angina Patients?

stem cellA recent study by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI) in Orlando, Florida has shown that stem cell therapy could potentially be used to ease refractory angina; a previously difficult to treat condition.

Refractory angina (RA) is an increasingly common illness that is estimated to affect around a million Americans. RA is caused by severe blockages in the heart, which restrict blood flow and cause life-limiting issues such as chest pains, tiredness, dizziness, and a shortness of breath. Unlike many other types of angina, refractory angina isn’t responsive to the usual treatments such as lifestyle changes, surgery, and medication.

Test subjects in the trial were transplanted with CD34+ cells which were self-donated. These cells were chosen as previous studies had shown that patients with coronary artery disease had a better outcome if the CD34+ levels in their bone marrow were high. Out of 112 patients studied in the trial, 57 of them received CD34+ cells, while the others received a placebo.

In follow up sessions at three, six, and 12 months, it was found that patients who had received the stem cell treatment were able to exercise for longer, and that their risk of a major angina attack had decreased.

At the two year follow up, it was found that patients who had received the stem cells had a lower rate of mortality.

The study found that the positive effects of stem cell therapy tended to decrease over time, which would mean that if this kind of therapy would need to be administered regularly.

SCAI unfortunately had to cut the study short due to funding issues, and although the original plan was to see 444 patients with refractory angina, only 112 were used in the trial. However, the results could be an exciting step towards creating better therapy for patients with difficult to treat heart conditions.