By: Omar Elsemary~
Stem cells, which seem to be the golden child of medical research, have been proven time and time again to be a potential cure for millions of people’s various ailments. Essentially, stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the potential of becoming any kind of cell in the body. Naturally, these cells are in their highest abundance during embryonic development (when cells need to rapidly divide and specialize). However, normal cells can also be induced to become stem cells once more through exposing them to certain environments to cause for certain pluripotent genes to be expressed. These stem cells can be used clinically to treat various diseases and injury, including (but definitely not limited to) diabetes mellitus, neurological injury, and even cancer. A possible use for these stem cells is growing them to become functional brain cells that can then be transplanted in humans, which is significant since neurons are notorious for having minimal, or no, regeneration ability (and yes, you need to know that for the MCAT).1 Before these stem cells are available and ready for human transplantation, researchers must first determine how to obtain them. Doctor Li Gan, a professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, and her team have found a solution. They were faced with the issue that human brain cells do not survive in culture, which meant they had to find a way to somehow engineer neurons in a laboratory setting. Doctor Gan and her team utilized induced pluripotent stem cells, (iPSCs), to resolve this issue. These cells were originally skin cells, which were then altered to become stem cells, and then induced to form into brain cells. Knowing this, Dr. Gan began utilizing iPSCs, growing many neurons in her lab and within months, she and her team were able to grow functional neurons after perfecting this method.2 Whereas this is undoubtedly great news, the issue now lies in the next step: human transplantation. Scientists have previously attempted to transplant human brain cells into patients with neurological diseases (such as Parkinson’s), but to no avail. However, with this new method that Dr. Gan perfected, it is possible that more sustainable cells may be engineered as needed, which will allow for full acceptance of the transplant by the body of the recipient. However, this breakthrough is still very promising. Using these engineered cells, researchers can screen many new drugs to hopefully create new treatments for a variety of brain degenerative diseases. Doctor Gan has successfully created a breakthrough in the long journey of providing a cure for currently-permanent neurological diseases that will hopefully prove to be useful in years to come.
Gladstone Institutes. "Growing human brain cells in the lab: Scientists develop a cheaper, quicker, and more reliable stem cell-based technology to facilitate drug discovery." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 October 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171010133912.html >.
Hamilton, Jon. “Brain Cell Transplants Are Being Tested Once Again For Parkinson's.” NPR, Capital Public Radio, 13 June 2017, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/13/532792500/brain-cell-transplants-are-being-tested-once-again-for-parkinsons.