Stem Cell Report – July/August 2001

Date: 09/30/2001

As the Administration Moves Forward on Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Adult Stem Cells and Other Alternatives Move Forward on Treating Disease

Note: On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced he would allow federal funding of research on existing stem cell lines obtained by destroying human embryos. The administration claimed over 60 such lines existed. In little more than a week after this announcement, scientists had announced at least six clinical and experimental breakthroughs, using adult stem cells and other non-controversial alternatives to embryonic stem cells. To date, embryonic stem cells have yet to treat even one human patient.

Stem Cells From Skin Develop into Brain Cells and Other Tissues

Researchers in Montreal, Canada report in Nature Cell Biology that they have taken adult stem cells from the skin of mice and transformed them into brain cells, including neurons, as well as glial cells, smooth muscle cells, and fat cells. The development points to the potential for creating a “vast and accessible supply” of neurons. The researchers’ work also suggests that similarly versatile adult stem cells can be found in the human scalp.

They are beautiful neurons,’ said molecular biologist and co-author Freda Miller. ‘You kind of look at them and say, this can’t be true. But then you go back and do it 10 times, and you realize it is true.

Ronald Worton, head of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, said: “Two years ago, I would have said this is a big surprise and I wouldn’t have believed it unless it could be widely reproduced. But then the dogma used to be that if you were a stem cell in [adult] bone marrow, you could only make blood cells, or if you were a stem cell in skin, you could only make skin. There’s now enough lab work to say the dogma was wrong.”1

Stem Cell-Rich Cord Blood Successfully Treats Often Fatal Blood Disorder

In a joint statement, doctors at Singapore’s National Hospital and Singapore General Hospital announced a “medical first” in transplanting umbilical cord blood from a non-related donor to successfully treat thalassaemia. Thalassaemia is a hereditary blood disorder that often causes severe anemia and is usually fatal to children if untreated. The statement noted that umbilical cord blood is rich in “haemopoietic stem cells” from which the different types of blood cells evolve.2

Scientists Purify Pluripotent Adult Neural Stem Cells from Brain

Scientists at Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research announced they had isolated an “extremely pure batch” of adult neural stem cells from the brains of mice. As reported in the journal Nature, the scientists were able to isolate the elusive neural stem cells with 80 percent purity, compared to a previous rate of 5 percent. “It proves that embryonic stem cells are not the only stem cells able to develop into new cells” (AAP Newsfeed, August 16, 2001). The finding highlights the potential to use adult stem cells to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. The neural stem cells were also transformed into muscle cells. Perry Bartlett, a member of the Australian team, says the research shows unequivocally that adult stem cells can become other types of cells: “It’s important in the sense that there’s been a debate about whether stem cells from adult tissues, whether that be brain or blood or elsewhere, do have the potential to give rise to various tissues. I guess this is one of the very first unequivocal demonstrations that these cells are able to give rise to a larger number of cell types than was previously thought.”3

Adult Stem Cells Show Success in Treating Autoimmune Disease

Physicians at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital report initial success in using adult stem cells to treat two patients with Crohn’s disease, a potentially disabling inflammatory bowel disease. One patient was said to be doing “phenomenally well” 2 ½ months after undergoing the procedure using the adult stem cells, which were extracted from her blood, leading doctors to try it on a second patient. Results in both patients were very encouraging, according to Dr. Richard Burt, who performed the procedures. Burt noted that results of similar procedures on multiple sclerosis patients have also shown progress, and that adult stem cell therapy on patients with lupus had repaired damage to their organs. According to Burt: ” ‘If you’re able to use your own stem cells,’ the embryonic stem cell issue is ‘not just ethically moot, it’s practically moot.'”4

Adult Stem Cells Treat Potentially Fatal Skin Disorder

A man with scleromyxedema, a rare and potentially fatal skin disease, is reported free of symptoms after receiving a transplant of adult stem cells taken from his own bone marrow. Like scleroderma, scleromyxedema causes the skin to thicken and become hard. Prior to the adult stem cell treatment, the patient could not completely close his eyes, and had lost the ability to eat. Three months after treatment the patient could once again close his eyes and open his mouth to eat. The results are reported in the August issue of Archives of Dermatology.5

Adult Stem Cells Repair Heart Damage

Scientists at New York Medical College in Valhalla and the National Institutes of Health report that stimulating the production of stem cells in bone marrow has repaired heart damage in mice. Mice were first injected with immune system chemicals called cytokines to stimulate production of stem cells in their own bone marrow. Seventy-three percent of the mice receiving this treatment were alive a month after the heart attack, compared to only 20 percent of those untreated. Autopsies showed signs of heart repair, and the researchers report “a remarkable recovery” in the heart’s pumping ability. The findings are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition, August, 2001.6

  1. J.G. Toma et. al., “Isolation of multipotent adult stem cells from the dermis of mammalian skin,” Nature Cell Biology 3, 778-784; Sept. 2001; Carolyn Abraham, “McGill team harvests stem cells from skin,” The Globe and Mail, Aug. 13, 2001.
  2. 0 “SCH scores another first in tem cell transplants,”Singapore General Hospital,; “Singapore scores medical first in treatment of thalassaemia,” Agence France Presse, Aug. 14, 2001.
  3. R.L. Rietze et al., “Purification of a pluripotent neural stem cell from the adult mouse brain,” Nature 412 736-739, Aug. 16, 2001; “Australian researchers claim stem cell breakthrough,” Agence France Presse, Aug. 16, 2001; “Scientists find key to growing nerve cells,” AAP Newsfeed, Aug. 16, 2001.
  4. “Adult Stem Cells Hold Hope for Autoimmune Patients,” Reuters Health, Aug. 13, 2001.
  5. A.M. Feasel et al., “Complete remission of scleromyxedema following autologous stem cell transplantation,” Archives of Dermatology 137, 1071-1072; Aug. 2001; “Stem Cell Transplant Treats Rare Skin Disorder,” Reuters Health, August 17, 2001.
  6. D. Orlic et al., “Mobilized bone marrow cells repair the infarcted heart, improving function and survival,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA www.pnas.orgycgiydoiy10.1073ypnas.181177898 (PNAS Early Edition published online); “Bone Marrow Cells Repair Heart Damage in Mice,” Reuters Health, August 14, 2001.