Adult Stem Cells Rely on Environment to Treat Patients in Therapies

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 24, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Adult Stem Cells Rely on Environment to Treat Patients in Therapies Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 24, 2006

Philadelphia, PA ( — Adult stem cells have similar abilities to turn into most any kind of tissue, just like embryonic stem cells, a new report says. University of Pennsylvania scientists published new data showing adult stem cells changing into most any environment in which they’re inserted.

Penn researchers found that mesenchymal stem cells, which regularly reside in the bone marrow as part of the body’s natural regenerative mechanism, can turn into bone, muscle, neurons or other types of tissue depending on the feel of their physical environment.

The adult stem cells depended on physical clues from their local environment in order to transform into different types of tissue.

The researchers were even able to manipulate stem cells by changing the firmness of the gel on which they were grown.

The findings, which appear in the Aug. 25 issue of the journal Cell, have implications for the use of adult stem cells in medical treatments. The results show that adult stem cells used in treatments could be prepared in a laboratory right before they are injected.

"Basically, mesenchymal stem cells feel where they’re at and become what they feel, said Dennis Discher, a professor in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and a member of Penn’s Institute or Medicine and Engineering.

The researchers say the results show how adult stem cells are effective in treating various diseases and in the development of unborn children.

Penn researchers reported that, for the first time, it has been established that the physical microenvironment is also crucial for guiding the cells through differentiation, where relatively blank stem cells turn into specific cell types.

According to the researchers, soft microenvironments that mimic the brain guide the cells toward becoming neurons, stiffer microenvironments that mimic muscle guide the cells toward becoming muscle cells and comparatively rigid microenvironments guide the cells toward becoming bone.

Learning about this is important because the environment can change in a person’s body when an injury occurs.

After a heart attack, for example, the heart becomes so scarred that stem cells seem ineffective in fixing the damage by turning into replacement cardiac muscle.

However, Discher said the studies show that it might be possible to prime stem cells for therapy in the lab, before implanting them in the heart, spine, or whatever damaged environment into which they’re inserted.