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Researchers Sniff Out New Source for Stem Cells

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The researchers also showed that the cells could rapidly regenerate themselves, and that they could turn into either basic nerve cells called neurons, or into a special type of cell that surrounds and protects the neurons themselves. Remarkably, the cells they originally harvested have remained viable and capable of regenerating continuously for at least 16 months.

In the latest studies, Roisen, his colleagues, and graduate students from his lab report that they have successfully isolated stem cells from the nasal passages of living mice, an essential step in advancing research from the laboratory to the clinic. They also describe experiments looking at how the environment that stem cells are placed in can influence what type of "adult" cells they will eventually become.

"The next step -- and this is more long range -- will be to take these cells and put them into injured spinal cord for example, put them into different parts of the central nervous system to see how they respond to the local environmental clues," Roisen tells WebMD. In the case of spinal cord injury, for example, the damaged tissues may emit certain chemical signals that inform the body that an injury has occurred and that it should recruit new cells to come in and repair the damage.

Roisen says that the researchers' ultimate goal is to be able to retrieve cells from a person who has suffered a spinal cord injury or who has a degenerative disease such as multiple sclerosis, which is caused by degradation of the cells surrounding neurons. The harvested cells could then be grown in the laboratory, nudged into becoming the needed type of replacement cell, and then reimplanted into that person -- without the need for drugs that fight immune-system rejection of transplanted tissues, because the patient would be receiving only his or her own cells.

"I think from a therapeutic point of view the work is very important," Peterson tells WebMD. "What has to be established is these cells in their normal condition turn into pretty specialized receptor neurons, and so the question that remains is their degree of flexibility to respond to environmental cues, to differentiate into a type that may be useful for disease applications."

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