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New pancreatic stem cell research could transform treatment

Stem cell research is of huge importance because it could lead to dramatic changes in the way we treat certain diseases. These cells, which can differentiate into specialised cells and also divide to produce more stem cells, are already used in a number of medical cases, such ...
New pancreatic stem cell research could transform treatment
Stem cell research is of huge importance because it could lead to dramatic changes in the way we treat certain diseases. These cells, which can differentiate into specialised cells and also divide to produce more stem cells, are already used in a number of medical cases, such as bone marrow transplants and the treatment of leukemia.

Researchers are confident that new stem cell technologies could be used to treat a wider variety of diseases, and breakthroughs are happening all the time. At the Hubrecht Institute in The Netherlands for example, scientists have just succeeded in growing stem cells that have the ability to develop into two different types of cells that make up a healthy pancreas. The results could eventually lead to new ways of repairing damaged insulin-producing beta cells or pancreatic duct cells.

Therapeutic strategies for pancreatic disease have historically been hampered by a lack of cell culture systems that allow scientists to grow replacement tissue in a test tube or on a dish. Alternative approaches such as tissue transplantation are limited by the scarcity of donors and the possibility of tissue rejection. This is why this particular study focused on a new cell culture system that could potentially achieve an unlimited supply of pancreatic stem cells. The research team, led by Dr. Hans Clevers, was able to isolate and grow stem cells from the pancreases of mice using a specialised 3-D cell culture system.

While cell culture in two dimensions has been routinely undertaken in thousands of laboratories over the past four decades, the culture of cells in two dimensions does not reproduce the anatomy or physiology of tissue. Studying cells in 3D on the other hand enables researchers to 'mimic' or approximate physiological conditions that exist in the body, helping scientists to establish differentiated cell function.

The researchers already knew that cell signalling molecules - known as Wnts - and a protein called Lgr5 are essential in producing adult stem cells that can grow and divide rapidly. The challenge in this case was that these signalling pathways and molecules are inactive in the adult pancreas. The team therefore had to find a way of activating the Wnt pathway.

In the study, this was achieved by changing certain growth conditions. The pancreases of mice were altered to make duct cells proliferate and differentiate. Some cells in this new population were stem cells capable of self-renewal; the scientists were able to culture these cells to produce large numbers of pancreatic cells or tiny clumps of tissue referred to as organoids.

While this work is still at a very early stage, the results have been promising. The next steps for the scientists is to further refine the cell culture methods developed in this study, and investigate new ways of extending this approach to human pancreatic cells.

Related information

Record Number: 36077 / Last updated on: 2013-09-18
Category: Other
Provider: EC
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