Stem cell research: Urine brain cells arouse new hope for Alzheimer's patients
Urine as a cure? In a new study, researchers from the Chinese Institute for Biomedicine and Health in Guangzhou have shown what sounds a little strange at first - and thus raise new hopes for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
For the study, which was published on December 9 in the science magazine "Nature Methods", Dr. Duanqing Pei, professor of stem cell biology and president of the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH) and his team isolated from human urine cells that can be converted into brain cells - thus creating a way to bypass the area of embryonic stem cells.
Alternative to embryonic stem cells
The topic of embryonic stem cells in research and medicine is considered ethically questionable by critics - because in order to obtain human embryonic stem cells, it is necessary to destroy previous human embryos. A possible solution is offered by the so-called “induced pluripotent stem cells”, cells that are produced artificially by converting a patient's stem cells back into cells of an earlier stage of development. Until now, blood or skin cells formed the basis for this research - but the Chinese research team led by Prof. Duanqing Pei now used urine as the basis for the first time, since this offers the great advantage that it is available more easily and quickly.
For their study, the scientists extracted cells from the urine of three test subjects aged 10, 25 and 37 years and converted them into cells that "closely resembled" the induced pluripotent stem cells - and this in a relatively short period of 12 days, others Methods used to take twice the time.
First successes with urine in 2011
The Chinese research team had already succeeded in producing pluripotent stem cells from urine last year - however, at that time the scientists used retroviruses, which also include the HI virus, to introduce the necessary genes, and they have a clear disadvantage: Because these viruses have a changing effect on the genetic material of the cells and make them more unpredictable, which may also mean that they proliferate and in the worst case can cause cancer.
New method with fewer risks
The researchers have now modified their method for their current investigations: They used tiny pieces of DNA from a bacterium that change the state of the cell but do not have a permanent effect on the genome - and thus minimize the risk of unpredictable developments.
In order to be sure of the results, the Chinese scientists let the cells obtained grow further in a nutrient solution and were able to find positive results: In fact, functional nerve cells (neurons) had developed in this way and were then injected into the brains of newly born rats. The result: After four weeks, the cells had inserted into the neuron network without forming tumors.
However, the research by Duanqing Pei and his colleagues is not yet finished: In a next project, it is planned to isolate cells from the urine of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients in order to investigate to what extent they may serve to “restore” attacked neurons could.
Method promises great potential for research The results of the Chinese experts are very popular among experts, because the method used offers great potential for research: "This could accelerate things significantly", according to the opinion of autism specialist James Ellis from the children's hospital in Toronto (Canada) on request of the magazine "Nature". Because he too relies on pluripotent stem cells to research possible genetic causes for autism - and especially when working with children, a urine sample is much easier to get than a blood or skin sample.
And even if an actual application of the method in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases would certainly take a lot of time and further studies - the Chinese scientists may have created new approaches for research in this area with their approach. A short abstract of the study "Generation of integration-free neural progenitor cells from cells in human urine" can be found here. (sb)
Image: Gerd Altmann / pixelio.de