Researchers at Hong Kong Baptist University believe they have come up with a way to cultivate neural stem cells with less risk of carcinogenesis than other procedures afford. They have developed a medical device that allows for the introduction of ‘physical messaging’ that instructs stem cells about how they are to differentiate.
The breakthrough may not seem like much to people who are not involved in the science of regenerative medicine, but it is huge to the scientists and clinicians who believe that stem cell therapy could eventually be the answer to a litany of disease. At the core of what the Hong Kong researchers are doing is the concept of cultivation, an idea that may prove to be the future of stem cell treatments.
In the regenerative medicine arena, cultivation is the process of taking pluripotent or multipotent stem cells and cultivating them in a lab in order to create specific kinds of tissue. The researchers at Hong Kong Baptist University are focusing on neural stem cells in hopes of devising a treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other similar diseases.
Current autologous stem cell treatments are ineffective for neurodegenerative diseases. In other words, a person cannot just donate his or her own stem cells to treat something like Alzheimer’s. Thus, researchers are turning to stem cell cultivation to create the tissue they need for neurodegenerative disease treatment.
Pluripotent vs. Multipotent Stem Cells
There are two kinds of stem cells researchers work with for the purposes of regenerative medicine: pluripotent and multipotent stem cells. The former can differentiate into any one of the three germ layers that make up human tissue. As such, they can be used to generate virtually any kind of tissue a doctor could want.
Multipotent stem cells are less powerful, if you will. These stem cells can only differentiate into other kinds of cells within the same germ layer. For example, multipotent stem cells in human blood can be encouraged to differentiate into lymphocytes, monocytes, etc. They cannot be coaxed into differentiating into brain or skin cells.
Apex Biologix, a Utah company that supplies centrifuges and PRP and stem cell kits to regenerative medicine providers, explains that the multipotent stem cells are the cells doctors are after when they withdraw stem cells from fat tissue or bone marrow to treat musculoskeletal injuries. The cells encourage the body to generate connective tissue. Those same stem cells would have no effect on a neurodegenerative disease.
Pluripotency Is the Goal
Knowing what we know about multipotent stem cells, it is theoretically possible to treat a variety of illnesses by focusing on targeted cells from each of the three germ layers. But such a course of action is not practical. The limits of multipotent stem cells would naturally limit their efficacy for extremely complex conditions. As such, regenerative medicine experts generally agree that achieving a means of safe pluripotency is the goal. Hence, stem cell cultivation is extremely important.
Treatments utilizing pluripotent stem cells have not lived up to the hype of the late 1980s and early 90s. Why? Because cultivating pluripotent stem cells carries with it a considerable risk of carcinogenesis. The same stem cells that are being coaxed to differentiate into different kinds of tissue can also become cancerous at the same time.
Researchers believe that pluripotency is the key to addressing neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and other complex medical problems. In order for that to happen though, a safer way to cultivate stem cells is needed. As such, the breakthrough in Hong Kong is major news that regenerative medicine experts are taking seriously.