Stem cells were first discovered at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and have since become one of the most promising fields in biological research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to differentiate into a variety of specialized cells under the right conditions.
The ability to differentiate into almost any cell type in the body has brought up the idea of using these cells to treat a variety of diseases, especially neurodegenerative diseases in which nerve cells start to die. Scientists transplant these undifferentiated cells in the body in the hopes they differentiate into cells that are deteriorating in the patient’s body.
One prominent stem-cell scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is Dr. Masatoshi Suzuki, an assistant professor of comparative biosciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Suzuki is currently using stem cells to model and find treatments for neuromuscular diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and muscular dystrophy.
Suzuki’s main research interests are to utilize stem cells to study neurodegenerative diseases. To do this, Suzuki extracts the cells and uses them as a model for specific neurodegenerative diseases that he can then study.
In his early studies, he “used stem cells to transplant into animal models of ALS and tested the ability of stem-cell transplantations into the spinal cord,” Suzuki said.
This determines if they were able to differentiate into muscle cells that could treat the disease. While Suzuki was able to see some protection from the degradation of the motor neurons by these transplants, he did not observe any functional benefits to the muscles which was his main goal.
This resulted in the idea to transplant the stem cells into muscles, which prevents the degeneration of the connections between the motor neurons and the muscles. Using stem cells from bone marrow called mesenchymal stem cells, Suzuki genetically modified them to secrete neuro-protective factors, which were shown to have the possibility to benefit the muscle function of neurodegenerative diseases when transplanted. While these initial studies showed functional benefit, Suzuki saw no dramatic improvement in overall muscle function.
“The cells were not able to integrate well in the muscles,” Suzuki said.
This caused further changes in Suzuki’s research focus as he began to experiment with specifically generating muscle cells from stem cells. Recently, Suzuki invented a new protocol to create large amounts of muscle cells and muscle progenitors from mesenchymal stem cells by introducing them to high concentrations of two growth factors called fibroblast growth factor-2 and epidermal growth factor.
This procedure of creating muscle cells is novel because it does not require genetic modification techniques, which prohibits the cells to be used in the clinic. Currently, only 40-60 percent of the cells under the growth factors differentiated fully into stem cells.
“I need to establish a protocol to improve this differentiation percentage and will need to work to further establish a protocol to purify and isolate only the muscle cells before I will move on to more medical applications,” Suzuki said.
Once these protocols are further defined, Suzuki can test the isolated cells to transplant into the animal models of different muscular and neurodegenerative diseases. Suzuki is very confident transplantation of stem cells can work to treat medical problems. Similar techniques are already being used in Japan for transplanting retinal eye cells. Scientists believe this concept can work in other places in the body as well to solve medical problems.
“It is important to think carefully about safety while using these cells, as contaminated cells could cause tumors and other problems if incorrectly transplanted,” Suzuki said.
Dr. Suzuki’s work is still in the early stages, but its potential is incredible. It shows that it is not unrealistic to think that stem-cell therapy may become the norm within the next few decades.