1 tem ells /background /information Stem cell research Copyright 2007 MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Institute for Stem Cell Research
2 /02 /information Table of contents Page 01. What are stem cells? Where can we find stem cells? Can stem cells be used to treat diseases? Where do the stem cells that are used in research come from? What are stem cell lines? Where is stem cell research now? What does the law say? Useful links 19
3 /03 /information 01. What are stem cells? There are over 200 different types of cell in the human body. Each type of cell is specialised to perform a specific function: -- Red blood cells carry oxygen through the blood stream -- Liver cells remove toxins from the blood stream -- Brain cells carry information in the nervous system Functional tissues and organs of the body are maintained through the production of new cells, via a process known as cell division. In some organs, cells are continuously dying and being replaced by new cells. A red blood cell, for example, lives for only 120 days. Our skin cells are replaced every 35 days. Sometimes disease or injury can cause cells to die or be lost. For example, when part of the liver is removed in surgery the remaining cells divide profusely and eventually replace the portion of liver that has been removed. Liver cells are special in their ability to divide and give rise to new identical cells. In contrast, most of the body s specialised cells are unable to divide and produce copies of themselves. Instead they are replenished from populations of stem cells, which have the unique ability to divide to produce both copies of themselves and other cell types: -- Red blood cells are replenished from stem cells found in the bone marrow -- Muscle cells, which are produced according to the body s needs and often damaged during physical exertion, are replenished from a population of muscle stem cells -- Skin cells are replenished from stem cells in the deeper layers of the skin Stem cells are therefore unspecialised cells they do not have a specific function (such as carrying oxygen, for example) (see Box 01).
4 /04 The ability of stem cells to produce identical copies of themselves, over and over again is truly remarkable. This process is called self-renewal and continues throughout the life of an organism. In addition to self-renewal, stem cells can also divide to produce more specialised cell types, such as blood and muscle cells. This process is called differentiation and happens naturally in the body. /box 01. What are the goals of stem cell research? Scientists are trying to understand how a stem cell decides between self-renewing and differentiating into a more mature cell. Another goal of research is to direct cells down certain routes, so that they become specific cells, such as the nerve cells that are damaged when the spinal cord is injured, or insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
5 /05 /information 02. Where can we find stem cells? Stem cells are found in early embryos (about 5-6 days old, in the case of human embryos), in fetuses, in the umbilical cord and in some tissues of the adult body, including the skin and bone marrow. Scientists have successfully grown stem cells from mice and humans in the laboratory Stem cells in the early embryo Although we end up with about cells when we reach adulthood, we all start off as a single cell the egg, formed when the male sperm fuses with the female ovum, during fertilisation. The fertilised egg then divides and forms two cells; each of these divides again (to form four cells), and so on. Five days later, a hollow ball of approximately 150 cells is formed, called the blastocyst. Embryonic stem cells are obtained from a group of cells in the blastocyst (See Box 02). /box 02. The blastocyst The blastocyst is the size of a pinhead. It contains two types of cell: the trophoblast and the inner cell mass. The trophoblast will go on to form the placenta and other supporting tissue for the growing foetus. The inner cell mass will give rise to the embryo proper and it is from these cells that embryonic stem cells are obtained. Although the cells of the inner cell mass can form all the tissues in the human body, they cannot alone form an organism because they cannot make the placenta and supporting tissue that is necessary for development of the embryo and fetus. In reality, the blastocyst can only develop into a fetus if it is implanted into the womb of a woman.
6 /06 Embryonic stem cells play a central role in the normal growth and development of animals and humans, since they go on to produce all the cell types of the embryo, the fetus and subsequently the adult. In theory, embryonic stem cells could be guided in the laboratory to become any of the 200 or more types of cell in the body. Stem cells in fetal and adult tissues Small amounts of stem cells can also be found in various tissues of the body such as bone marrow, skin, blood, muscle, brain and the lining of the gut. These are called adult stem cells, or tissue stem cells. The main role of these cells is to maintain and, in some cases, repair the tissue in which they are found. Adult stem cells are pre-programmed to give rise to specific cell types when they differentiate. So it is that adult stem cells usually only produce cells specific to the tissue in which they are found. Stem cells found in muscle, for example, will normally only give rise to muscle cells. Scientists are actively investigating the possibility that an adult stem cell from one tissue may, under the right conditions, give rise to cell types of another tissue. This ability of adult stem cells would make them more widely used for therapy, and would get round the ethical issues surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells (see Box 03). Fetal stem cells are found in the tissues of developing fetuses (in humans, a fetus develops from the end of the eighth week of pregnancy, when the major structures have formed, until birth). Fetal stem cells are similar to adult stem cells, in that they are capable of giving rise to a limited number of cell types. They are less mature than adult cell types, and so are easier to identify and grow in the laboratory.
7 /07 Stem cells in umbilical cord blood Blood stem cells are also found in the umbilical cord of a newborn baby. The stem cells in umbilical cord blood are less likely to be rejected by the person who receives them. There are fewer stem cells in umbilical cord blood than can be obtained from bone marrow. Cord blood has been used to treat children suffering from leukaemia and other blood diseases (see Box 03). /box 03. Adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells It has been reported that blood stem cells can turn into brain or liver cells, and rescue fatal liver disease. Scientists are trying to understand how this happens. Scientists are working to develop ways to increase the number of stem cells that can be obtained from umbilical cord blood, so that it may be used to treat adults as well as children. The potential of these blood stem cells to form other types of cell, such as nerve cells, is currently being investigated. Scientists are also trying to find out whether other stem cells, similar to embryonic stem cells, are present in umbilical cord blood. Either discovery would increase the potential of umbilical cord blood for treating a wider variety of diseases.
8 /08 /information 03. Can stem cells be used to treat diseases? Stem cells have the ability to replace damaged cells in the body that would otherwise not be replenished. This property has led scientists to investigate the potential use of stem cells in supplying cells to treat diseases such as Parkinson s, heart disease, and diabetes, in which cells are irreversibly lost, and for which there are currently treatments but not cures. Scientists are working to direct stem cells to become the appropriate specialised cells, for example, brain cells. It is hoped that by transplanting these cells into the damaged or diseased tissue of an individual, they can be used to regenerate the various cell types of that tissue. Bone marrow transplants and skin grafting are established examples of therapeutic uses of stem cells. During a bone marrow transplant, for example, blood (haematopoietic) stem cells are removed from the bone marrow and transplanted into the patient to generate new blood cells. Bone marrow transplants have been used for 40 years to treat several blood diseases, such as leukaemia and anaemias. This approach of replacing diseased cells with healthy cells is called regenerative medicine, or cell therapy. It is similar to the process of organ transplantation, except that the treatment consists of transplanting cells rather than whole organs. Most scientists believe that the use of stem cells to replace other types of damaged cells and tissues is still some years away. Other, equally important, uses of stem cells are closer at hand (See Box 4).
9 /09 /box 04. Short term applications of stem cells Stem cells can be directed to produce specific cell types in the laboratory that can be used for testing medicines. If scientists are able to grow huge amounts of cells that are all the same then pharmaceutical companies could use them to test the medicines they have developed. Consequently, the amount of testing done in animals could be considerably reduced. Stem cells can also be used to study disease processes. In many cases it is extremely difficult to obtain the cells that are damaged in a disease, in order to study them in detail. Instead, they could be made from stem cells, engineered to carry the disease gene. For all purposes, these would be diseased cells, which scientists could use to model the disease, and so better understand the processes that are causing damage. /notes.
10 /10 /information 04. Where do the stem cells that are used in research come from? Embryonic stem cells The blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are obtained come from several sources: 01. Surplus embryos created for fertility treatment, through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), which involves fusing the female egg and sperm in the laboratory. When a couple decides to undergo fertility treatment, several IVF embryos are created, to increase the chances of a successful implantation in the womb, and subsequent pregnancy. The surplus embryos, that are not implanted in the woman s womb, may be discarded or stored. Alternatively, they may be used for research, with full consent of the couple undergoing treatment. Between 1991 and 1999 approximately IVF embryos were stored in the UK Embryos created specifically for research purposes, through IVF. Female eggs and sperm are collected separately, and then fused in the laboratory to create blastocysts, from which embryonic stem cells can be obtained. To date, embryos have not been created in this way for research. Embryos created to do research on, using the technique of cell nuclear transfer (also called therapeutic cloning). The nucleus of an adult cell (for example, a skin cell) is transferred into an unfertilised egg that has had its nucleus removed. The egg is activated so that it starts dividing and gives rise to an embryo. The embryo has the same genetic makeup as the individual from whom the adult cell was taken. This is the technique used to create Dolly the sheep.
11 /11 A major difference between the research that created Dolly and that carried out in humans is that the human embryos created using cell nuclear transfer are never implanted in a woman s womb and so never go on to form a fetus or a baby. They are used solely to grow embryonic stem cells from the blastocyst. This process is banned in some countries but is permitted in the UK, under strict regulation (see What does the law say? ). To date, several research teams have been successful in obtaining cloned human blastocysts but no-one has been able to grow human stem cells from the embryos. Fetal and adult stem cells Adult stem cells are obtained by taking some of the relevant tissue from the body. They are often very difficult to obtain: just imagine how difficult it is to identify and reach the stem cells in the brain! Blood stem cells are an exception. They are found mainly in bone marrow. They can be taken directly out of the bone marrow, or stimulated to move into the blood stream where they can be easily collected. Scientists are also exploring ways to stimulate adult stem cells inside the body. They hope to induce signals in the tissue that will get the stem cells to divide, multiply and make the appropriate specialised cells, without having to move the stem cells into the laboratory. Fetal stem cells are obtained from five to nine week old fetuses from elected pregnancy terminations, with full consent from the mother for research. Umbilical cord blood stem cells Umbilical cord blood is an alternative source of blood stem cells. It has several advantages, such as: the process by which the blood is harvested is not invasive at all (unlike harvesting stem cells from an adult), and millions of babies are born each year, making umbilical cord blood very abundant. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, have set up umbilical cord blood banks (similar to blood banks). The stored cord blood is available to whoever may require treatment with blood stem cells, and also to do research on.
12 /12 /information 05. What are stem cell lines? In the laboratory, stem cells are grown in liquid culture media containing nutrients and growth factors that act like food for the cells, allowing them to survive, grow and divide. The cells are grown in special flasks, in incubators where the temperature and mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide are similar to those found in the human body. The aim is to maintain the cells in just the right conditions to support their growth and proliferation. Embryonic stem cells can be maintained in these culture media indefinitely. These cell cultures are called stem cell lines, because the cells are able to replicate themselves for long periods of time, outside the body (See Box 5). At any time, scientists can make the stem cells stop dividing and drive them to make specialised types of cell (blood, brain, muscle), simply by changing the make-up of the medium. They are, therefore, very valuable to scientists, because they can be used for a variety of experiments, including modelling diseases and testing new drugs. Embryonic stem cells are grown on layers of support cells in the presence of serum from the blood. Together, the cells (known as feeder cells) and the serum provide the nourishment the embryonic stem cells need to survive and divide. Traditionally, mouse skin cells were used as feeder cells, and the serum was obtained from calves or other animals. Scientists are working to completely replace the mouse feeder cells with human cells, or to grow the embryonic stem cells without feeder cells at all. This would guard against possible transmission of animal viruses into the human cells, and, subsequently, into patients who receive these cells. Adult stem cells can also be grown in a liquid culture. However, unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells (as well as fetal stem cells) tend to spontaneously make more specialised cells in the dish. Consequently, it is very difficult to make cell lines from adult stem cells.
13 /13 /box 05. How are stem cell lines stored in the laboratory? Once an embryonic stem cell line is established, the cells can be harvested into vials and stored at ultra-low temperatures (-180 C). The stock of frozen cells is called a cell bank. At any time, the frozen cells may be thawed and used for research or therapy. Stem cell banks are therefore very useful resources for scientists, especially when the cell lines are freely available to all researchers, as is the case with public cell banks such as the UK Stem Cell Bank. It is estimated that in the whole world, there are 64 human stem cell lines. Scientists have been improving the way in which the stem cell lines are established, making new, safer lines to be used in therapy.
14 /14 /information 06. Where is stem cell research now? Identifying and isolating adult stem cells Much research is being done on identifying and isolating adult human stem cells, which are usually very rare in adult tissue. It is not easy to find the adult stem cells among the many other types of cell in the brain, the liver or the skin, for example. Generating specialised cells from stem cells Embryonic stem cells need to be stimulated into becoming specialised cells, before they can be transplanted into patients. Many laboratories are working on developing the proper conditions for this specialisation, as well as understanding how the whole process takes place. When directing embryonic stem cells to become specialised cells it is crucial that no embryonic stem cells remain in the final population of cells: because of their unlimited ability to divide, a single embryonic stem cell that is introduced into the body may grow uncontrollably and give rise to tumours. Integrating cells into the body Once specialised stem cells are obtained, other obstacles arise when transplanting them into a person (or an animal). The new cells need to integrate into the tissue or organ where they are placed, so that they function properly. Heart cells, for example, need to beat in rhythm with the patient s own heart cells. Nerve cells need to become wired into the brain s circuit in order to work properly. Overcoming rejection by the immune system Stem cell therapies, like organ transplants, face the problem that the cells may be rejected by the patients immune system. The immune system protects the body against disease by recognising micro-organisms that are not its own and destroying them. The immune system also rejects human cells and tissues that do not belong to the body. This has resulted in the failure of many organ transplants, and is an obstacle that must be overcome if stem cell therapies are to succeed. To overcome this obstacle, organ transplant patients are given drugs to dampen their immune system, which in itself can be quite dangerous as it leaves patients more vulnerable to infections.
15 /15 Alternatively, using the patient s own cells and tissues is expected to overcome the concern of immune rejection. This could be achieved using the technique of cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning. Because the stem cells obtained from the cloned embryo (blastocyst) are identical to the patient s cells, they will not be rejected by the patient s immune system when transplanted back into the body.
16 /16 /information 07. What does the law say? The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which was amended by both Houses of Parliament in 2001, strictly regulates the isolation of stem cells from human blastocysts, in the United Kingdom. Under the Act, any research using human embryos must relate to one or more of the following purposes: 01. To promote advances in the treatment of infertility 02. To increase knowledge about the causes of congenital diseases (diseases that are present at birth) 03. To increase knowledge about the causes of miscarriage 04. To enhance knowledge in the development of more effective contraception 05. Detection of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities before implantation of the embryo in the womb 06. To increase knowledge about the development of embryos 07. To increase knowledge about serious disease 08. To enable any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatment for serious disease
17 /17 The use of embryos in stem cell research is only allowed with authorization from the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA). Licences are only granted if the HFEA is satisfied that any proposed use of embryos is absolutely necessary for the purposes of the research. Licensed research can only take place on embryos created in vitro. That is, embryos which have developed from eggs fertilised outside the body. Most embryos used in stem cell research are embryos that were initially created for use in IVF treatment, but not used. These surplus IVF embryos can only be used for research if they are donated with full consent of the parents. Licensed research can only take place on embryos up to 14 days old. Stem cells are isolated from the blastocyst much sooner than this at 5 6 days.
18 /18 /notes.
19 /19 /information 08. Useful links MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Institute for Stem Cell Research (ISCR) Learn more about stem cell research carried out at this centre of the University of Edinburgh National Blood Service Information on banking of umbilical cord blood immunotherapy_services/index.asp The UK Stem Cell Bank Find out more about stem cell lines and stem cell banks An animation showing how embryonic stem cell lines are made is available at Human Embryo and Fertilisation Authority (HFEA)
20 MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine The Institute for Stem Cell Research The Roger Land Building King s Buildings West Mains Road Edinburgh EH9 3JQ Telephone: +44 (0) Facsmile: +44 (0) (care of Pat Hope) Creative commons licence This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non- Commercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK: Scotland License. To view a copy of this licence, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105, USA.
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