Monday, July 20, 2015

Stem Cell Progress

Stem cell researchers originally used cells extracted from human embryos, a process which resulted in the death of the embryo. This, of course, was an intolerable situation for those who hold to a high view of human life, and it was a great relief a few years ago when technology advanced to the point where other types of cells, notably skin cells, could be made pluripotent without destroying embryonic human beings.

Now researchers working with skin cells are beginning to see their work bearing fruit as this article in the UK Independent notes:
Scientists have made tiny human hearts that can actually beat from nothing — and they’re so small that they can barely be seen with the naked eye.

The hearts have been grown using only stem cells, for the very first time, the New Scientist reports. As such, it mimics the processes that happen when humans hearts’ grow for the first time — except it happens in a lab, at the prompting of researchers.

The new hearts were created using stems cells that were made by reversing human skin cells, so that they turned back to something like an embryo. Once that was done, the scientists encouraged the cells to grow into the right formation, changing their shape and then eventually forming first into the cells that help hearts beat, then into those that connect the heart up and after that into tiny ventricles.

The techniques could eventually be used to create a full-sized heart, scientists suggest to the New Scientist. “Our model is the first step towards building a heart relying on self-organisation of cells, without any external three-dimensional supporting materials,” says Zhen Ma, from the University of California at Berkeley, told the magazine.

The same technique might also be used to create other parts of the human body. It has long been difficult to encourage lab-created organs to grow into the right thing — but the new research gives a new insight into how stem cells turn into the right cells.

But in the shorter term, the tiny hearts can be used to study how humans’ bigger ones work. The “highly defined human cardiac microchambers”, as the scientists call them, could also tell us more about how embryos and early hearts are formed, as well as how certain drugs affect babies before they are born.
Great prospects for creating other organs from skin cells in the future. No dead embryos. It's a development that only Deborah Nucatola, the current occupant of Planned Parenthood's Dr. Mengele chair, wouldn't appreciate.