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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Stem Cell Research Races Toward the Clinic

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Not to be outdone, Fred H. Gage, PhD, and colleagues from the Salk Institute, Children's Hospital of Orange County and Stanford University, all in California, report that they were able to snatch adult rat and human nervous system stem cells from the jaws of death, get them to multiply, and turn into nerve cells -- even when the donor had been dead for more than 20 hours.

"We were able to induce some of the cells taken from the brains of cadavers to turn into neurons. The research shows that the tissue could be a new, noncontroversial source of human neural cells for transplantation and experimentation," says Gage in a written statement.

Researchers at the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) have also found it surprisingly easy to get nerve stem cells to do you what you want them to do. Ronald D. G. McKay, PhD, chief of the laboratory of molecular biology at NINDS and colleagues have been able to direct stem cells from mouse embryos to turn into one of two types of brain cells that are essential for normal function.

One type of cell they have been able to grow produces dopamine, a chemical that helps to control body movement and is largely absent in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease. The other type of cell produces serotonin, a hormone that helps to control mood; clinical depression can be caused by a defect in how the brain stores and uses serotonin.

"You have to know what you're doing, and the procedure takes about a month. You are mimicking a lot of steps in the differentiation that would normally happen [in real life], so you are coaxing the cells through an impressively complicated set of transitions. But the fact is that the conditions that we have apparently support that really quite efficiently," McKay tells WebMD.

Okay, so once you've got all these swell new stem cells, can they be used to possibly treat more than just ALS or spinal motor atrophy? Tracy McIntosh, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School have an answer. They showed that stem cells from the brain, when transplanted into the brains of adult mice with traumatic brain injury, produced a dramatic improvement in their ability to control movement for up to 12 weeks after injection. But although the treated mice were better able to move, they did not show any improvement in their ability to learn or remember a new task following brain injury.

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