Human Brain Stem Cells Have Embryonic-Like Potential, Researchers Say

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 21, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Human Brain Stem Cells Have Embryonic-Like Potential, Researchers Say Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 21, 2006

Gainesville, FL ( — Researchers at the University of Florida have found that adult stem cells taken from the human brain may have the same potential as embryonic stem cells. If so, the cells offer yet another moral and ethical alternative to destroying human life to obtain stem cells for research purposes.

Writing in the medical journal Development, scientists from University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute describe how they used mature human brain cells taken from epilepsy patients to generate new brain tissue in mice.

Furthermore, they can coax these pedestrian human cells to produce large amounts of new brain cells that not only could be used for therapies for one patient, but could assist millions of people.

Dennis Steindler, Ph.D., executive director of the McKnight Institute, said, "We can theoretically take a single brain cell out of a human being and — with just this one cell — generate enough brain cells to replace every cell of the donor’s brain and conceivably those of 50 million other people."

While several scientists have said that traditional stem cell research therapies, including embryonic stem cells, will not likely yield a cure for Alzheimer’s, Steindler indicated the brain cells appear to offer hope for patients afflicted with the degenerative brain disease.

"This is a completely new source of human brain cells that can potentially be used to fight Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and a host of other brain disorders," he explained.

"It would probably only take months to get enough material for a human transplant operation," Steindler added.

The findings document for the first time the ability of common human brain cells to morph into different cell types, a previously unknown characteristic, and are the result of the research team’s long-term investigations of adult human stem cells.

Last year, the researchers published details about how they used stem-like brain cells from rodents to duplicate neurogenesis – the process of generating new brain cells – in a dish. The latest findings go further, showing common human brain cells can generate different cell types in cell cultures.

In addition, when researchers transplanted these human cells into mice, the cells effectively incorporated in a variety of brain regions.

The human cells were acquired from patients who had undergone surgical treatment for epilepsy and were extracted from support tissue within the gray matter, which is not known for harboring stem cells.

Even when the cells from the epilepsy patients were transplanted into mice, bypassing any growth enhancements, they were able to take cues from their surroundings and produce new neurons.

Ben Barres, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, said the research shows human cells having the same successes as similar cells found in mice.

"That these cells were able to integrate into tissue in an animal model and actually survive – it was extremely important to show that," he said.

"Now the question is what will these cells do in a human brain?" Barres asked. "This work is a first step toward that end."