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By Prajith
A new kind of stem cell raises the prospect of regenerative treatments that mimic the way salamanders grow new limbs, according to Australian researchers. Therapies based on “induced Multipotent Stem” cells could be tested in human trials as early as next year, they say.

The team, from the University of New South Wales, demonstrated a way of producing iMS cells by reprogramming bone and fat cells. In theory, the cells could be used to repair bone, cartilage, and muscle. Unlike other kinds of stem cells that can differentiate into many types of tissue, iMS cells are not thought to run the risk of triggering cancer.

Lead scientist Professor John Pimanda said, “We are currently assessing whether adult human fat cells reprogrammed into iMS cells can safely repair damaged tissue in mice, with human trials expected to begin in late 2017. This technique is ground-breaking.”

To date researchers investigating regenerative treatments have experimented with Embryonic Stem cells and Induced Pluripotent Stem cells. Both behave in a similar way, multiplying indefinitely and having the ability to transform into any kind of body tissue. While ES cells are natural, obtained from early-stage embryos, iPS cells are made by reprogramming adult cells. But both run the risk of generating cancerous tumours, and iPS cells are created using genes injected by viruses, which is clinically unacceptable.

The iMS cells which are the focus of the new research reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have a more limited capacity but are claimed to be safer than ES or iPS cells. The Australian team produced them by inducing “plasticity” in bone and fat cells from mouse and human donors.

The technique involved exposing the cells to a compound called AZA as well as a platelet-derived “growth factor” — a substance that stimulates growth. It mimics the remarkable way salamanders use plasticity to regenerate lost limbs or tails, according to the scientists.

Dr Ralph Mobbs, also from the University of New South Wales and who will lead the human trials, said, “The therapy has enormous potential for treating back and neck pain, spinal disc injury, joint and muscle degeneration and could also speed up recovery following complex surgeries where bones and joints need to integrate with the body.”

In another breakthrough, scientists at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego, California, believe baldness may soon be a thing of the past because stem cells could hail a new future in the way the condition is treated. The most common form of alopecia, or hair loss, is male-pattern baldness, which affects around 50 per cent of men by the time they reach 50. Female-pattern baldness is less common, and less understood, but usually hits when a woman goes through menopause. While alopecia is not life-threatening in itself, social pressures mean that those who suffer from the condition can feel self-conscious, and can become depressed.

In the past, scientists isolated health dermal papilla cells, which are vital to hair growth, and grew these in a culture. But as the cells reproduce, they become less effective. To make their breakthrough, the San Diego team avoided the problem by producing the papillae from stem cells — a technique proven to work on rats. Alexey Terskikh, an associate professor at Sanford-Burnham, said he hoped the procedure could lead to more effective hair transplants in humans. “Our stem cell method provides an unlimited source of cells from the patient for transplantation and isn’t limited by the availability of existing hair follicles,” he said.
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