Scientists have created stem cells that could turn into many types of neuron, without the risk of tumors developing in laboratory mice. University of California at San Diego professor Kang Zhang created self-renewing neural stem cells that can produce a steady supply of stem cells - which could one day be used to treat a number of diseases ranging from eye diseases to Parkinson's disease.
While human embryonic stem cells can grow into any cell and regenerate damaged cells and tissue, stem cell therapy hasn’t exactly lived up to its promise. One of the major setbacks, as seen in animal models, occurs when stem cell injections result in tumor growth. The problem here is this: What is the purpose of curing one disease to replace it with another, more serious ailment?
With the right mix of chemicals, the stem cells were able to grow into precursor cells and remained in limbo in an intermediate stage until they were directed to grow into mature neurons. What's more, growing the stem cells this way enabled Zhang to create millions of neural stem cells in less than a week.
Since the cultures didn't require any animal products or gene transfer, the stem cells remained rather pure. According to 10News.com:
Two years ago, 40 mice were injected with stem cells at the laboratory. Six months later, all 40 mice developed some sort of tumor.
But after using the research from UC San Diego, 40 additional mice were recently injected with stem cells. Now, six months and even a year later, none of the mice developed a single tumor.
Zhang told SmartPlanet that he is interested in creating eye-specific neurons to repair the ones lost in degenerative diseases like macular degeneration. But he adds that it might be possible to regenerate motor neurons lost in spinal cord injuries, and repair those lost in Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's disease.
In the future, Zhang will see if stem cells can treat neurodegenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration or glaucoma.
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