It's flat-out amazing how fast the science of adult stem cells is moving.
Just last week, I told you about two scientists who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for creating this field.
The advance that cemented their award occurred in 2002. But it wasn't until just five years ago, in 2007, that the science of deriving adult stem cells really began in earnest.
As you might expect, it took two or three years just for all those teams around the world to get organized.
Already, I'm seeing a steady stream of new findings. There seems to be something new almost every week.
As a group, they point to a day in the very near future in which adult stem cells will become a routine part of treating a wide range of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer's.
See, that's the great thing about stem cells—they can grow to become anything, from bone to brain tissue. Doctors hope to take your own cells, like those in your skin, and use them to grow replacement organs or to repair damaged muscles or other tissue.
Over the weekend, I told you how a team used adult stem cells to reverse vision loss in older mice. As it turns out, there are more advances you should know about.
You will really like this first one. . .
Adult Stem Cell Breakthrough No. 1: The New Fountain of Youth
At age 20, armed with one of the best male physiques on the planet, Arnold Schwarzenegger became Mr. Universe.
At 65, the action hero still looks good. . .but he's not nearly as buff.
And how could he be? It's a simple fact of science. As we age, we lose muscle mass, leaving us much more prone to falls and injuries.
Now, a team from the U.S. and Great Britain has found both the cause and a possible cure. Team members looked at stem cells inside muscles of mice. They found that the older mice in the study had far fewer of the stem cells needed to repair damage and rebuild muscle mass.
As the muscles got older, they showed high levels of a protein known as FGF2. That's important because this protein tells cells to divide, and the process continued over time until the muscles run out of stem cells. As that occurred, the muscles slowly withered away.
To stop the pool of stem cells from running out, team members gave the mice a common drug used to inhibit the FGF2 protein. So far, it seems to be working; team members slowed the decline of muscle stem cells in the mice.
"The finding opens up the possibility that one day we could develop treatments to make old muscles young again," said team leader Dr. Albert Basson. "If we could do this, we may be able to enable people to live more mobile, independent lives as they age."
Next, the researchers want to study muscles in older humans. It may take a few years to prove that the stem cells in our human muscles go through the exact same process as in mice. But if that turns out to be the case, the team has a head start on a possible "fountain of youth."
Adult Stem Cell Breakthroughs No. 2 and 3: Fighting Brain Disease
Few diseases attack the brain as ruthlessly as Huntington's disease (HD).
People who get the hereditary disease start to jerk and twitch, then lose control of their muscles. As HD patients get sicker, they can have severe breaks with reality. And then they die.
At present, there is no way to even slow the disease. Yet 200,000 people in the U.S. alone are at risk of developing it. No wonder research teams are working overtime to come up with a cure.
One team has reported key progress in finding new ways to test drugs that might at least keep the disease at bay. And it's all because of adult stem cells.
The global research team pulled off a fascinating feat. They took skin cells from a young patient and turned them into brain cells that actually had HD. By using adult stem cells to make what they call "HD in a dish," team members took a big step toward learning what kills the brain cells of those who inherit the fatal disease.
"For the first time, we will be able to study how drugs work on human HD neurons and hopefully take those findings directly to the clinic," said Dr. Christopher A. Ross of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Now, Ross and his team are starting to test new compounds they hope will become drugs that can slow the progress of HD. Ross thinks this also could help with research into other fatal brain disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Meantime, a team at the Hospital for Sick Children may have found a new way to treat brain disease or injury with a drug that is widely used to treat type 2 diabetes.
They found that the drug, metformin, instructs stem cells in the brain to become nerve cells. This is important because both cell types play a vital role in the repair of an injured brain or one breaking down from disease. Thus, the diabetes drug might help those with brain diseases for which there is no treatment.
And there's more good news. . .
Because metformin is already on the market, doctors may be able to test it on current brain injury cases. And that could cut years off the time it can take to conduct full clinical trials to get approval for use as a brain treatment.
Adult Stem Cell Breakthroughs No. 4 and 5: Making Treatments Healthier
As I told you in parts 1 and 2 of this series, adult stem cells allow us to avoid the whole debate about the ethics of using those that come from embryos.
The adult versions are not without their problems, though.
One big challenge to date is that they also can cause tumors to grow (as do embryonic ones).
But a team from the Mayo Clinic has found a much safer route.
They used chemotherapy in advance to kill off the trouble-making cells. Using mouse models, the Mayo team found that the chemical agent killed off the DNA of the stem cells. The big advance here is that the process killed the cells that cause tumors but left the healthy cells intact.
They still need to do more tests, but team members believe this could be one way to start making adult stem cells a safe treatment for patients.
Meantime, a team at the University of Michigan has come up with a way to grow adult stem cells that the body won't reject. And to think—it's all thanks to a synthetic gel that coats a petri dish.
This gel allows the stem cells to grow without any type of contaminants getting into the dish. That means nothing can get in that could disrupt the growth of the adult stem cells.
Team members turned those cells into ones for fat, cartilage, and bone. Mice that got the treatment had 4.2 times as much bone as those that didn't—and all without any attempt by their bodies to reject the transplanted cells.
I predict that adult stem cells will play a big role in what is going to be a very bright future. This field could be a real boon to improving the health of the entire human race. I believe we are not far from the day when we could all live to 100. . .and, more to the point, enjoy it.
In the meantime, I'm keeping an eye out for an investment opportunity in the field.
Because no doubt it will make investors very rich, too.
Michael A. Robinson
Read part 1 of Michael Robinson's series on stem cells here.
Read part 2 of Michael Robinson's series on stem cells here.