Once upon a time, there was an old adult stem cell who had three little stem cells, and not enough mitochondria to fuel them. So when they were mature enough, the grown up cell sent them out into the world to seek their fortunes.
The first little stem cell was lazy. It didn’t work at all, so it differentiated into a sedentary bone cell. The second little stem cell worked a bit harder, but still lazy – it transformed into a muscle cell. The third little stem cell worked hard all day, and became an intelligent brain cell.
When stem cell research began far away and just as long ago, it’s alluring potential – from providing insight to early human development, to eradicating permanent, fatal autoimmune diseases – was the stuff of fairytale.
But as stem cell scientists understood more and more about the basic biology of stem cells, the People Who Cried Stem Cell perhaps weren’t so crazy.
Now, stem cell experts are narrowing in on the unique properties and possibilities of each stem cell type. Embryonic stem cells can become just about anything (like the Three Little Stem Cells in the intro), adult stem cells can become special tissues or organ cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic ones.
These are a few more stem cell fairytales that have become non-fiction, thanks to the significant strides made by researchers to understand stem cell characters and their stories.
Cinderella’s fairy godmother must be a brilliant scientist, or possesses supernatural magic or something. It’s the only way she could possibly make that mouldy pumpkin into a luxury carriage, using just the right spell to make Cinderella’s commute to the ball convenient.
This dose of magic is what’s needed in stem cell science too, where scientists have learned they too need just the right formula to change stem cells into the type of cells they want.
For example, researchers at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto, Canada, created a concoction of nutrients and proteins that encouraged human embryonic stem cells to differentiate into heart progenitor cells. The adult heart cells then grew into the three types of cells commonly found in heart muscles.
Studies like this progress our understanding of how our hearts develop, and brings us closer to another fairytale fable: the ability to create heart tissue for therapeutic purposes.
THE THREE LITTLE STEM CELLS
Like the Three Little Pigs, not all stem cells are the same.
And like the little pigs’ homes, some stem cells are seemingly made from straw, while others are made from bricks.
Scientists from Brown University discovered that the physical properties of stem cells can foreshadow the type of tissue those cells are best suited for.
Stiff stem cells, for example, had the best stuff to become bone cells; fat cells could easily form from soft, squishy stem cells; and the highest quality cartilage cells came from stem cells with high viscosity.
In the future, stem cell researchers hope stem cell retrieval, sorting, and therapy can all occur in the same procedure. So surgeons needing extra bone cells for an injury could extract extra fat, choose the stiffest stem cells, and inject to the site – all in the same sitting.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN STEM CELLS
If a stem cell’s DNA is compromised at any critical stages through exposure to chemicals, radiation, or other external factors, embryonic stem cells will end their lives to prevent the defection from spreading when the cell divides.
This baffled scientists for years, until a research team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learned why. Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic ones have an active protein called bax, which shuts cells down by communicating with other vital proteins.
Therefore, the cells need a way to prevent accidental suicide, so each cell stores its Snow White-like ‘poison apple’ in the Golgi apparatus, isolated where it’s less likely to interact with other cell proteins.
Researchers believe these findings can provide new understandings to the development of stem cell therapies, like replacing cells lost in conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
While it’s still early to determine if these discoveries will lead to a happily-ever-after, stem cell potential is now taken as plausible, rather than laughable. Having said that, our regenerative medicines and injection therapies can help you recover from any chronic injury, having you feel more like royalty instead of a toad.
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