DNA Day experts answer your questions about Stem Cells

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/tupungato

What are stem cells and why are they important?

Stem cells have the potential to differentiate into other types of cells as they multiply. Hence, they are thought to have potential in helping to grow specific tissues,organs, limbs, etc. and have the potential to help things like spinal injuries.

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

Can anyone give a brief theory about stem cells and its usage?

Stem cells are basically unspecialized cells that you can find in all humans. They are unique in that can rapidly keep on dividing, while they can also differentiate into specialized cells within the body (into mature cells with a specific function in specific organs and tissue like the liver or heart). Most stem cells in adult humans originate in the bone marrow and as they grow and mature, they can become "specialized" into for example red blood cells, or insulin producing beta cells in order to replace any damaged "specialized" cells in the body. But an embryo for example would begin with a few stem cells which would later differentiate into specialized cells, tissues and organs in order for the baby to develop into a fully functional human. So you can even think of stem cells as babies (or baby cells) who grow up to become unique adult individuals as they mature! This amazing capacity for the stem cells to differentiate into almost any other cell in the body makes it a great tool for scientists to use and experiment on. This is because now damaged organs or tissues can be replaced and regenerated by using stem cells, rather than replacing them with entire organ transplants through surgery (which saves a lot of time, effort and money!). For example stem cells can be used to replace damaged skin cells, or damaged neurons in the brain after an injury. The great thing about stem cells is that in some cases the stem cells from the bone marrow of the same person can be used to regenerate damaged tissue, but in other cases like Leukemia a bone marrow transplant from a donor would be needed which becomes more complicated since the bone marrow of the donor must match the bone marrow of the person requiring the stem cells (which isn't easy to find!). There are many other complications (like ethics) but also many other benefits to using stem cells too, but this is the general basics.

- Answer provided by Harman Sawhney

What role does DNA play in the use of stem cells?

Stem cells have the same genetic content (DNA) as non-stem cells. What recent papers have shown is that the 3D dimensional structure and chemical modifications of the DNA (both protein coding and non-coding) are to a large extent the determinants of a cell's tissue type, including stem cells. Some gene regions "shut down" when a stem cell turns into a specific cell type, while other areas "open up".

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

How close do you think we are to creating functioning human organs from stem cells?

We are getting closer but this will take some time. This is in part because of the complexity of the science but also because of the ethical questions that it raises, and which should be addressed.

- Answer provided by Dr. Gijs Van Rooijen

What are your views on Embryonic stem cell research?

I don't have a problem personally with it. However, if everything that could be gained from embryonic cells can be obtained from adult cells, then go that direction and avoid conflict.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Do you think that there will ever be a way to obtain stem cells from someone without the process being intrusive?

I don't know, but doubt it - collecting any live cells from your body, even skin cells from a biopsy feels pretty intrusive to me. However, there has been a move to collect blood from the umbilical cord of newborn babies, as this 'cord blood' is thought to contain pluripotent stem cells... and taking the cord blood is noninvasive to the infant.

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

Are there any genetic links to Duchennes Muscular Dystrophy? Is there any chance of a cure for Duchennes based on genetic research? Have (or will) stem cells be(en) used to treat Duchennes?

Duchennes muscular dystrophy does indeed have a genetic cause, with mutations occurring in a gene called dystrophin. These mutations often lead to the cell skipping over part of the DNA that was supposed to get incorporated first into RNA, then into protein. As a result, muscle cells suffer. I am not familiar with the stem cell work, but yes, researchers are exploring this and it shows promise. Other avenues with promise include using drugs that can help cells read the DNA without skipping parts.

- Answer provided by Dr. Karen Bedard

When will stem cells be used to cure genetic diseases in humans?

There have already been trials of using stem cells to treat certain kinds of blindness - with mixed results. So i think this will be a gradual, not a sudden revolution, but revolution it will be.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Could stem cells be used between close relatives to cure diseases since their genomes would be so similar?

Be forewarned that I'm not an expert of stem cell research...but in general, there is greater immunological compatibility between close relatives, yes. Rejection can be handled in different ways depending on how it is mediated, but the larger issue is probably getting the right type of stem cell from the donor. In the case of bone marrow (and increasingly liver), this is proven, but in most other cases it's an organ that's transplanted, not stem cells.

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

Is it possible to use stem cells of the human body to 'heal' incurable diseases in human nature.

Yes, there are some current treatments that are referred to as stem cell transplant. But, these are treatments for a few types of conditions only. A lot of research is ongoing because there is a lot of hope that stem cell can help advance "regenerative medicine" that would repair a wide range of tissues. For example, if you remember the actor Christopher Reeve, he had high hopes that stem cell could eventually treat spinal cord injuries.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

Could cancer, one day, be completely cured from a stem cell transplant?And if that was possible, would that have any effect on the chromosomes or DNA, positive oor negative?

There are many kinds of cancers and I'm not sure why a cancerous stem cell would be transplanted unless by accident... but cancer treatments can and do sometimes have negative side effects. My cousin has non-hodgkins lymphoma, has had bone marrow transplant and several rounds of chemotherapy. Although the cancer is in remission, his heart muscle has been damaged by the chemotherapy...

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

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