Stem cell technology has the potential to revolutionize medicine, but the revolution has been considerably slower than expected. Government restrictions and ethical dilemmas have put up roadblocks to fast-paced biological research, and even when these roadblocks are absent, controlling the behavior of stem cells (cells that have the ability to form a number of cell types and tissues) in a petri dish has proved tricky to say the least.
In one particular area of stem cell research, however, progress has been steady. Cord blood stem cells can be harvested from the umbilical cord and placenta of a newborn baby and stored for future use, the idea being that they can be used down the road should that baby (or a genetically similar relative) become sick. These stem cells have been used to treat close to 100 blood-based conditions, including several types of leukemia.
One particular challenge has been to force cord blood stem cells to become anything other than a blood cell. This is because stem cells exist in varying degrees of “stemness”; that is they differ in their ability to form different kinds of tissue or cells. For example, blood stem cells are really good at generating all of the different types of blood cells, but do not generate skin cells. However, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in collaboration with scientists in Barcelona, Spain, have succeeded in coaxing these stem cells to become neurons, a groundbreaking step in the treatment of traumatic brain injury and other neuronal disorders.