Recent Advances in Embryonic Stem Cell Research

ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) | Alzheimer’s Disease | Blindness | Blood Disorders | Blood Supply | Brain Tumors | Cancer |
Cartilage Damage | Diabetes | Hearing Loss | Heart Disease & Damage | Infertility | Lung Damage | Multiple Sclerosis |
Muscular Dystrophy | Organ Replacement | Parkinson’s Disease | Platelet Transfusions | Spinal Cord Injury | Tissue Damage

ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)

Neurons made from human embryonic stem cells can both send and receive nerve impulses when transplanted into the mouse brain, scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison have announced. The discovery provides some of the strongest evidence that human embryonic stem cell-derived neurons, which could be used to treat a variety of neurological disorders such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and stroke, can fully integrate and behave like regular neurons when transplanted into the brain. (The Scientist, Nov. 21, 2011)

Using both embryonic and adult stem cells, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created astrocytes, star-shaped cells in the brain that act like bodyguards for neuron brain cells and play an important role in diseases of the central nervous system. Astrocytes are more common than neurons but have been hard to grow in the lab. Being able to study them could help researchers understand their role in normal brain functioning, and help find new treatments for diseases such as ALS, in which the neurons are overworked. Transplanting healthy astrocytes could rescue the injured neurons. (LiveScience/FOX News, May 23, 2011)

Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge and Cardiff in the United Kingdom have created a range of motor neurons – nerves cells that send messages from the brain and spine to other parts of the body – from human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory. The process, which will enable scientists to create different types of motor neurons and study why some are more vulnerable to disease than others, could help scientists better understand ALS, primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), progressive muscular atrophy (PMA) and other motor neuron diseases. (University of Edinburgh, March 1, 2011)

Alzheimer’s disease

Using embryonic stem cells, scientists at Northwestern University outside Chicago have made batches of human brain cells (neurons), which are likely to prove valuable in finding drugs that slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The advance may even pave the way for neuron transplants to treat memory loss associated with the incurable neurodegenerative disorder. The researchers made the brain cells by adding chemical growth factors to human embryonic stem cells, a technique that allows scientists to grow an almost limitless supply of the brain cells. (The Guardian, March 4, 2011)

Blindness

In July 2011, two patients became the first people to be treated in FDA-approved clinical trials for a therapy derived from embryonic stem cells for dry age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, leading causes of blindness in the elderly and children, respectively. Advanced Cell Technology of Santa Monica, Calif., developed the treatment, which in rats and mice has prevented further vision loss without adverse side effects. (Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2011)

Using human embryonic stem and induced pluripotent stem cells, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison generated retina-like tissues that could one day be used to develop and test therapies for blinding eye diseases. The scientists isolated these early retinal structures from other cell groups and grew them in batches in the laboratory, where they produced major retinal cell types, including photoreceptors and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Importantly, cells from these structures matured and responded appropriately to signals involved in normal retinal function, making them potentially valuable not only for studying how the human retina develops, but also how to keep it working in the face of disease. (University of Wisconsin-Madison, June 15, 2011)

Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan have created a retina from mouse embryonic stem cells that could pave the way for treatments for human eye diseases, including some forms of blindness. Created by coaxing the stem cells into a precise three-dimensional assembly, the “retina in a dish” is by far the most complex biological tissue engineered yet, scientists say. If the technique can be adapted to human cells and proved safe for transplantation it could offer an unlimited well of tissue to replace damaged retinas. More immediately, the synthetic retinal tissue could help scientists in the study of eye disease and in identifying therapies. The work may also guide the assembly of other organs and tissues. (Nature, April 6, 2011)

Blood disorders

Researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, report a gene therapy strategy that improves the condition of a mouse model of an inherited blood disorder, beta-thalassemia. The gene correction involves using unfertilized eggs from afflicted mice to produce a batch of embryonic stem cell lines. Some of these stem cell lines do not inherit the disease gene and can thus be used for transplantation-based treatments of the same mice. The findings also could hold promise for a new treatment strategy for autosomal dominant diseases like certain forms of beta-thalassemia, tuberous sclerosis or Huntington’s disease. (ScienceDaily, Feb. 13, 2011)

Blood supply

Scientists have created synthetic blood using human embryonic stem cells, which could aid soldiers on the battlefield and victims of large-scale disasters when blood bank supplies are low. The scientists, who are working with the Wellcome Trust in Great Britain, say their ultimate goal is to create the rare O-negative blood type. It can be given to any patient without fear of rejection, but is produced by only 7 percent of people. (Daily Telegraph, Aug. 16, 2010)

Cancer

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have generated the first genome-wide mapping of a DNA modification called 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) in embryonic stem cells, and discovered that it is predominantly found in genes that are turned on, or active. The finding may prove to be important in controlling diseases like cancer, where the regulation of certain genes plays a role in disease development. (ScienceDaily, July 21, 2011)

After vaccinating mice with human embryonic stem cells, researchers at the University of Connecticut Stem Cell Institute found that the lab animals developed a consistent immune response against colon cancer cells. The vaccinated mice showed a dramatic decline in tumor growth, compared to the non-vaccinated mice. (University of Connecticut Health Center, Oct. 8, 2009)

Scientists at the University of Minnesota found that cancer-killing immune cells derived from human embryonic stem cells completely eliminated cancerous tumors in 13 of 13 mice tested. In the same study, similar immune cells derived from human umbilical cord blood cells eliminated cancerous tumors in five of 13 mice. (University of Minnesota, May 4, 2009)

Cartilage damage

Scientists have turned embryonic stem cells into the cells that produce cartilage, which could be used to repair damaged and diseased joints. The researchers, based at The University of Manchester and Central Manchester NHS Foundation Trust in Great Britain, hope this work will lead the way to the use of human embryonic stem cells to provide cheaper and more readily available treatments for joint diseases and that the principles can be developed for other chronic human conditions. (The University of Manchester, Oct. 18, 2010)

Diabetes

For the first time, scientists from The New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory and Columbia University in New York have derived embryonic stem cells from individual patients by adding the nuclei of adult skin cells from patients with type 1 diabetes to unfertilized donor eggs. The achievement is significant because such patient-specific cells potentially can be transplanted to replace damaged or diseased cells in persons with diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or other diseases without rejection by the patient’s immune system. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, also assisted. (The New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory, Oct. 5, 2011)

Researchers at San Diego-based ViaCyte Inc. plan one day to test in people a therapy that has successfully cured diabetes in hundreds of mice. The technique involves slipping under the skin an envelope filled with pancreatic cells derived from embryonic stem cells. The pancreatic cells would turn into insulin-producing beta islet cells and could reduce the need for daily insulin shots.  (Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2011)

Hearing loss

Researchers at Stanford University in California have coaxed embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into becoming the hair cells deep inside the ear that are destroyed in hearing loss. Once damaged, the cells cannot be repaired; however, the stem cell advance raises the possibility of treating different types of deafness and hearing loss. (Reuters, May 13, 2010)

Heart disease and damage

Scientists have developed a new technique that could lead to a potentially inexhaustible supply of cells for research and drug discovery. The researchers, working at Monash University in Australia, inserted a green fluorescent protein gene from jellyfish into heart cells derived from embryonic stem cells. The gene turned the heart cells green, making them easily distinguished from the other cell types in the stem cell culture. Using this technique, the scientists can isolate and study heart cells grown from the stem cells of heart disease patients and model heart disease in a Petri dish. The team is using similar strategies to isolate insulin-producing cells for the treatment of diabetes and blood cells for the treatment of leukemia. (Australian Life Scientist, Oct. 24, 2011)

Scientists from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have shown that human embryonic stem cells can be transformed into heart cells using a “decellularized” heart as a scaffold. For the study, the researchers stripped a mouse heart of its cells, leaving only the organ’s scaffold, and replaced them with stem cells. After 14 days, the stem cells developed into two different types of cells found in the heart. The cell-laden scaffold was then implanted back into the mouse where it was observed to develop visible blood vessels, which are critical for the transport of nutrients and oxygen to the heart. (Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, Aug. 12, 2011)

Researchers at Tottori University in Japan have successfully made heart pacemaker cells using the embryonic stem cells of mice. The achievement could lead to breakthroughs in treatment for irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmia, and could reduce the need for electronic pacemakers in human patients. (The Daily Yomiuri, Jan. 12, 2011)

Infertility

In a development that could help treat infertility in people, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan used embryonic stem cells from mice to grow healthy mouse sperm on laboratory dishes. The researchers coaxed the stem cells into a type of precursor cell known to grow into either mouse eggs or sperm. They then transplanted these cells into the testes of infertile male mice, which went on to produce healthy sperm. (Reuters, Aug. 5, 2011)

Lung damage

Scientists at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium have discovered a new technique for differentiating human embryonic stem cells into major cell types of lung tissue. The breakthrough could provide an alternative to lung transplants for patients with lung injury due to chronic pulmonary disease and inherited genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis. (Medical News Today, Nov. 4, 2009)

Memory loss due to brain tumor treatment

Brain cancer patients who experience learning and memory deficits after radiation treatments could regain them with injections of human neural stem cells, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine. Rats whose brain function was impaired by radiation showed marked improvement after receiving such injections, doing a far better job of exploring mazes for hidden toys. The neural stem cells, which were developed from embryonic stem cells, turned not only into new neurons, but into other kinds of brain cells that are vital support structures in the brain. (The Orange County Register, July 13, 2011)

Multiple sclerosis

U.S. researchers have pushed embryonic stem cells to produce special cells that might one day repair nerves damaged by multiple sclerosis. The disease damages the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers, leaving behind scar tissue called sclerosis. MS can also harm the nerve fibers themselves. The damage disrupts the nerve impulses between the brain and body and results in symptoms that vary from person to person and from time to time in the same patient. Fast Forward, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, helped fund the study. (U.S. News & World Report, April 9, 2009)

Muscular dystrophy

Researchers at Monash University in Australia have worked out how embryonic stem cells differentiate into specialist skeletal muscle cells early in development. The work could point the way to regulating the differentiation of muscle stem cells into functional muscle fibers, leading to treatments for muscular dystrophy through cell therapy. (Monash University, July 14, 2011)

Injecting stem cells into injured mice made their muscles grow back twice as big in a matter of days, creating mighty mice with bulky muscles that stayed big and strong for the rest of their lives, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found. If the same applies to humans, the findings could lead to new treatments for diseases that cause muscles to deteriorate, such as muscular dystrophy. It may even help people resist the gradual erosion of muscle strength that comes with age. (Reuters, Nov. 10, 2010)

Organ replacement

In an initial step toward generating viable, transplantable human organs, researchers at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan have used embryonic stem cells from mice to create a pituitary gland from scratch. The small organ, located at the base of the brain, produces many important hormones and is a key part of the body's endocrine system. It's especially crucial during early development, so the ability to simulate its formation in the lab could help researchers better understand how these developmental processes work. Disruptions in the pituitary have also been associated with growth disorders, such as gigantism, and vision problems, including blindness. Next, the scientists will try to generate a pituitary using human stem cells, which could take another three years, they say. (MIT Technology Review, Nov. 9, 2011)

Parkinson’s disease

A new method for turning embryonic stem cells into dopamine-producing brain cells has reversed Parkinson’s-related damage in the brains of mice, rats and monkeys. The method, developed at Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, provides an efficient way of making functional cells. When transplanted into the animals, which had brain damage and movement problems similar to Parkinson’s, the cells integrated into the brain and worked normally, reversing the animals’ motor issues. (MIT Technology Review, Nov. 7, 2011)

Platelet transfusions

Chemotherapy, radiation treatments, organ transplants and illness can all depress numbers of platelets – the cell fragments in the blood that help form clots – in the human body. Patients often need platelet transfusions; unfortunately, platelets are scarce and have a shelf life of only about one week. However, scientists affiliated with Advanced Cell Technology in Santa Monica, Calif., Harvard Medical School, Cha University in Seoul and the University of Illinois have generated platelets on a large scale using human embryonic stem cells. (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11, 2011)

Spinal cord injury

In September 2011, a patient in San Jose, Calif., became the fourth person to be treated with embryonic stem cells in an FDA-approved clinical trial for patients with a spinal cord injury. Developed by Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, the treatment has been shown to restore limb function in rats. In this first phase of the clinical trial process, researchers will review the therapy’s safety. Later they will consider its effectiveness. (San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 20, 2011)

Tissue damage

Scientists at Harvard University are studying how embryonic stem cells might be used in a specialized bio-inkjet printer to grow new body parts for organ transplants or new tissue for damaged skin. The researchers have developed an automated process that has improved their ability to print the initial mass of stem cells, an essential first step in developing the therapies. (ScienceDaily, July 5, 2011)

Scientists have found a way of using human embryonic stem cells to create new skin which could help patients with serious burns. The researchers at the Institute for Stem Cell Therapy and Exploration of Monogenic Diseases in France reported that stem cells grew into fully formed human skin 12 weeks after being grafted onto mice. The skin could solve rejection problems that burn patients now face. (BBC News, Nov. 20, 2009)

This content provided with permission of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures

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