Despite the fact that some forms of stem cell research are highly controversial, there is no denying that they are a potent treatment for many conditions. Of course, it isn’t the stem cells themselves that cause problems—but rather where they come from.
That’s why scientists are trying to find new ways of producing stem cells that don’t involve embryos. A team from the University of New South Wales has reportedly created a method of turning fat cells into stem cells that can then be used to repair wounds.
Although the research has only been conducted in mice so far, it could be a promising breakthrough for the future of stem cell therapy. The team published its research in the journal Science Advances.
Although fat serves a vital purpose in the human body, no one really likes it. As such, no one would be sad to use it as a sort of catalyst for producing stem cells. That’s what the New South Wales team did.
To reprogram the fat cells, the team exposed them to a cocktail of different ingredients. One of the main components was azacytidine, a cancer treatment drug. Another was a naturally occurring growth factor that is known to stimulate tissue repair and cell growth. According to a press release, the fat cells “lost their identity” about three and a half weeks later.
From there, they became multipotent stem cells (iMS) and were injected into mice. Hematologist and New South Wales professor John Pimanda said, “To my knowledge, no one has made an adaptive human multipotent stem cell before. This is uncharted territory.”
After injecting the mice with the iMS cells, the research team waited to see what would happen. At first, the cells remained dormant. However, when the mice were injured, the stem cells helped treat the wounds by transforming into the type of tissue that needed to be repaired.
Dr. Avani Yeola, the lead author of the study, said, “The stem cells acted like chameleons. They followed local cues to blend into the tissue that required healing.”
It’s worth noting that scientists have discovered several other methods of turning ordinary cells into stem cells. However, they are not equal. Many of the methods are very limited, both in terms of safety and what type of stem cells they can produce.
For instance, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can’t be directly injected into living creatures because they carry the risk of developing into a tumor in the future. Although they could be used to treat certain conditions, no therapy can be approved due to the cancer risk. Moreover, iPS stem cells need to be carefully cultivated in order for them to become specific types of cells or tissues.
On the other hand, iMS stem cells look far more promising. They have shown no indication of tumor growth so far and, just as importantly, are able to adapt autonomously into an array of different tissue types.
“These stem cells are unlike any others currently under evaluation in clinical trials,” Dr. Yeola notes.
Furthermore, since iMS stem cells originate from the patient’s body, they are far less likely to be rejected. The team notes that harvesting donor cells and transforming them into iMS stem cells could be done in a few ways.
Senior research fellow Dr. Vashe Chandrakanthan says, “One idea is to take the patient’s fat cells, but it into a machine where it incubates with this compound. When ready, these reprogrammed cells could be put into a vial, and then injected into the patient.”
He continues, “Another option is to combine the two compounds into a simple mini-pump that could be installed in the body, like a pacemaker.”
The team’s press release notes that the “mini-pump” could be placed near the body part that needs to be repaired. For instance, if it was intended to help a patient recover from a heart attack, the device could be implanted in the chest. This would allow it to regularly dispense fresh doses of the medication to produce new iMS stem cells in the area.
Moving forward, there is still a lot of research to conduct before iMS stem cells can be approved as a medical treatment. Obviously, making sure this method is safe is the most important step.
Pimanda says, “Preclinical studies and clinical trials still need to be done, and we need to be sure we can generate these cells in a safe condition. Industry partners could bring expertise in production of clinical-grade iMS cells and design and conduct of clinical trials. This will help take this research to the next stage.”
Dr. Chandrakanthan notes that it could be as long as 15 years before iMS stem cells become a real-world therapy. He says, “Successful medical research that achieves its final goal—that is, translating to routine clinical applicants and treatment—can often take many decades. There can be barriers, setbacks, and failed experiments. It’s the nature of research.”
Although this reality dampens the mood surrounding the research, there are still many reasons to be excited. Should it be proven safe and effective, the iMS stem cell therapy could be used to treat a number of potentially fatal health conditions.
The team’s press release highlights traumatic injuries and heart damage as just a few of the health problems that could be addressed by iMS stem cells.
This is extremely fascinating research that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Indeed, if future studies show that it is safe and effective, it could redefine the way we think about medicine. Instead of using chemical-based drugs to treat health conditions, we could use cells from our own bodies.
Even so, Chandrakanthan says that it’s important for everyone to temper their expectations appropriately. He says, “While these findings are very exciting, I will keep a lid on my excitement until we get this through to patients.”
Should that day come at some point in the future, there will be no limit to the excitement around the world.