The title might seem a bit melodramatic, but I’m pretty amazed by some research I found.
In a recent article from Nature Methods a research group have put forward the possibility of generating Neural Stem Cells (NSC’s) from urine.
Ok so for those who don’t understand all of the above, this is pretty big! (hence why it’s in a Nature Journal). Everyone has heard of stem cells and their possibly magical healing abilities, replacing damaged brain/heart/liver/younameit tissue and allowing people to live much longer. Well this isn’t strictly true. A totipotent stem cell (the one most of us think of when they are mentioned, I.E. a single cell that can go on to become an entire animal) is not all that perfect. If directly transplanted into a human it is highly possible that instead of healing the patient’s brain/heart/liver/younameit, it will probably form a teratoma. These are pretty nasty cancers which are made of all sorts of things, including entire body parts such as feet, veins and arteries, even teeth and hair. In fact a lot of teratomas are found as hairy balls with teeth sticking out in odd places. As a result the science community generally regards stem cells as a possible future treatment for many illnesses, but right now it’s just too dangerous.
So what about this research? Well firstly, they aren’t making totipotent Stem Cells, just multipotent Stem Cells (they can’t make a whole animal, but they can make a whole organ, in this case a brain). Because of this, a teratoma is much less likely to form. In the paper itself the researchers remark at how, after transplanting the cells into mice, no teratoma’s or cancer’s were seen. Nevertheless the scientist in me says that they only transplanted the cells into 12 rats, which isn’t that big a sample size! So teratoma’s and cancer’s shouldn’t be ruled out just yet. However what interests me the most is that this could have a significant impact on how we research brain networks and disorders.
Many methods to obtain NSC’s are either invasive and/or dangerous (e.g. hippocampal biopsies) some are expensive and rare, sometimes even ethically questionable (taking stem cells from cord blood or discarded embryos). With this method all that needs to be done is someone pee’s in a cup, the cells from the urine then being genetically manipulated to become NSC’s. What are the Con’s? The efficiency rate is low (0.2% of cells are successful), however that’s pretty normal for Science. I can’t really think of any others. The Pro’s? It’s relatively easy, the source is unlimited and ethically acceptable, you can do direct analysis of cells from patients without needing to do a biopsy, culture-based Neuroscience research can be entirely human based as opposed to being animal based. To be honest there are a lot of pro’s and the above are just some of the most significant ones.
What we are essentially saying is that research into any neural disorders, such as Autism, where people are extremely interested in how networks are affected, doesn’t have to use animal samples. Instead we can take samples direct from a patient suffering from a condition and do the most relevant and translatable culture-based research that can more or less ever be done using the patients own cells and genetics. That hopefully means faster and more relevant research giving quicker and better results and eventually treatments. Meanwhile as we get used to using these cultures, become more efficient at creating them and hopefully gain a better understanding of how they work and how cancerous they are, we may eventually produce treatments for really important diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimers. And all the patient has to do is pee in a cup.
Wang, L., Wang, L., Huang, W., Su, H., Xue, Y., Su, Z., Liao, B., Wang, H., Bao, X., Qin, D., He, J., Wu, W., So, K., Pan, G., & Pei, D. (2012). Generation of integration-free neural progenitor cells from cells in human urine Nature Methods DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2283