Biologists in China Create Neural Stem Cells From Urine

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Feb 5, 2013   |   1:18PM   |   Washington, DC

Back in the 17th century, Hennig Brand, a German Alchemist, boiled a lot of urine looking for a way to make gold. He instead discovered phosphorus.

Today, scientist may have turned urine into a different kind of gold, stem cell gold. Researchers in China have created neural stem cells from the cells found in urine. From Wired:

Biologists in China have published a study detailing how they transformed common cells found in human urine into neural stem cells that can be used to create neurons and glial brain cells. The find holds huge potential for the rapid testing and development of new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders.

The team, from the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health, had announced in 2011 that it had successfully reprogrammed skin-like cells from the kidneys, found in urine, into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells can be tweaked to become pretty much any human cell in the body; however the traditional technique prompting this transformation — inserting pluripotent genes into the blanket cells via a genetically engineered retrovirus — has its flaws. It seems the presence of the retrovirus leads to a destabilisation of the genome, rendering it unpredictable, susceptible to mutations and thus a liability.

Stem cell biologist Duanqing Pei and his team opted for another route, that they claim presents a safer, faster alternative. Having extracted kidney epithelial cells from the urine of three donors aged 10, 25 and 37, the team used vectors — a type of DNA molecule useful in transporting genetic information from cell to cell — to transport the information without having to integrate the new genes into the chromosome of the kidney cell, something that is presumed to be partly to blame for the aforementioned mutations….

Though the team did not definitively prove that the cells would have less mutations in the long run, it did suggest the method could provide a good alternative to using embryonic stem cells to build new neurons. In a 2007 study, when the embryonic stem cells began their transformation into neurons and were transplanted into the brain’s of rats suffering from an equivalent to Parkinson’s, they began to divide too quickly and tumours formed. This time around, however, when the neurons and astrocytes were transplanted into rat brains they appeared to still be thriving a month later, with no signs of abnormal cell division or tumour formation.

As the authors of the study point out in their paper describing their alternate technique for reprogramming, previously, one source of neural stem cells was fetal tissue. This means these “fetal” neural stem cells were likely obtained from aborted fetuses. According to a Bloomberg press release, Neuralstem, a Maryland company, developed their neural stem cell line from an elective abortion.

Reprogramming cells from urine, which is easy to obtain and in abundant supply, into neural stem cells is a major improvement. Not only are these neural stem cells a genetic match to the patient, unlike those derived from abortion, but with this new technique that does not use retroviruses, these cells may be safer than neural cells derived from embryonic stem cells. This could be a huge breakthrough in finding treatments for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.