New Research Discovers How Stem Cells Make Decisions
Embryonic stem cells are one of medicine’s great mysteries.
Since the first application of these stem cells in the late 1980s, they have been used to treat upwards of 80 different diseases, cancers and genetic conditions. This is because these cells, once introduced to the body, can change into nearly any type of cell in the body.
Until now, though, scientists had no idea how these cells made their decisions.
How do stem cells determine which kind of cell they need to change into and what prevents them from becoming unnecessary cells instead?
The Different Types of Stem Cells
Stem cells, both the adult type harvested from bone marrow and the ‘naive’ stem cells collected from cord blood and placental tissue are, come in two types — hematopietic and mesenchymal cells.
Hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs, are the most commonly used type of stem cells. They can easily change any blood cells for use in treatment. This type of stem cell has been used for more than two decades in treatments like the ones mentioned above.
Mesenchymal stem cells, or MSC, are less commonly used but possibly more viable for a variety of treatments. While HSCs can become blood cells or blood components, MSCs can transform into brain tissue, neurons, bone, muscle or fat tissues as needed. These cells appear in both cord blood and cord tissue and aren’t currently used for any form of treatment.
Molecular Decision Making
Until now, we didn’t know much about the stem cell’s decision-making process. The cells were introduced into the body and were, by and large, successful in repairing the targeted damaged cells, but they also tended to change into two or more different kinds of cells during the treatment.
Getting them to turn into the targeted type has been difficult, especially when you consider the limited resources available — cord blood and tissue can only be harvested once, after all.
A physicist named Stefan Semrau created a method for monitoring the cell’s decision-making process. By applying single-cell RNA sequencing to the cells, Semrau was able to track the sequence of the RNA in each cell.
Semrau and his team found that when they treated one of these sequenced cells with a signaling molecule known as retinoic acid, all of the cells would react the same way for a short period.
After about 24 hours, though, the cells would split into two different distinct groups. Rather than continuing to change, though, the cells would remain in these two groups throughout the experiment. These cells decided to transform and then to stop converting once the cells divided into two groups.
Not only is this a fantastic advancement in the study of stem cells, it provides a new understanding for embryonic development as well.
The Future of Stem Cell Treatments
What does this discovery mean for the future of stem cell transplants and other related treatments?
The technology is developing quickly. In the next five to 10 years, stem cell transplants could potentially become an inexpensive and effective treatment for a variety of different conditions.
Now that we have a greater understanding of how the stem cells choose their transformational qualities, we can are heading in the right direction to create any number of specialized treatments and targeted adult stem cells.
The biggest problem that stem cell treatments might face is the fact that this is not a typical treatment. The standard timeline of lab to pre-clinical to clinical trials does not always apply, making it harder to have these treatments approved by the FDA.
Additionally, we will require additional research into the potential applications of the previously unutilized mesenchymal stem cells that could unlock new treatment options, which were not possible with traditional hematopoietic stem cell treatments.
Stem cells allow the body to repair itself by transforming into the cells that are necessary to facilitate the repair.
In the future, these cells could potentially change the way we look at medicine, and the research into the cell’s decision-making process is the first step toward turning these cells into an affordable and effective treatment.