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Coaxing Cells

How are stem cells coaxed to become specific cell types?

For many stem cells, especially embryonic stem cells, the possibilities can be endless. In order to harness their potential to someday treat and possibly cure disease, scientists must uncover how these cells can be coaxed to become and stay specific cell types.

8-cell embryo, day 3 8-cell embryo, day 3.

One hope that many have for future stem cell therapies is repair of brain and nerve cells lost to diseases. The Go-To Guy describes how researchers and clinicians are coaxing stem cells into specific brain cell types in effort to develop a treatment for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease) or psychiatric diseases.  In Forging Ahead and Transforming Skin Cells to Stem Cells, a neuroscientist explains how he’s using stem cells to learn more about Parkinson’s disease in effort to someday treat it. But in all of these approaches, it’s All About Networking and trying to coax transplanted stem cells to connect to and communicate with the injured brain and nervous system. In There’s Lots of Work, Still a neuroscientist explains the complexity of the human brain and the struggle to understand how the brain naturally protects itself from damage after a stroke

Many researchers believe that in addition to their ability to replace damaged cells, stem cells can activate the body’s natural repair systems to get nearby cells to grow again. In Spinal Micro-Repair, a neurologist tells of his hopes for corralling the body’s own repair systems to treat spinal injury and Joint Repair tells of the advances biomedical engineers have made in getting stem cells to grow into bone and cartilage.

Lastly, in Becoming Liver, researchers are trying to identify the molecular signals that tell cells how to behave and what types to become.

“You need a special expertise to grow human embryonic stem cells,” says Ted Dawson, M.D., Ph.D.,  a professor of neurology who uses stem cells to study Parkinson’s disease.  “They’re fastidious and require a lot of babying.  It’s more than just applying protocol.  As far as making iPS cells from skin, you need to be able to choose the colonies that have a high likelihood of turning into stem cells. There’s a real art to that.  Hongjun and the folks in his lab have the hands and the eyes to make that happen.  And everyone’s taking advantage of their expertise.”