Thursday, 4 April 2013

Researchers isolate, for the first time, stem cells from human intestinal tissues

Researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) just reported that they have isolated, for the first time, stem cells from human intestinal tissue. According to them, their findings may allow other scientists to unveil the deeper mechanisms of human, intestinal stem cells. The study may also have implications in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease and gut damage induced by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

Scott T. Magness, senior author of the study, says that the inability to extract and isolate intestinal stem cells was a big "roadblock" for stem cell research. However, this is about to change as scientists now "have to tools to start solving many of these problems". It should be mentioned, that Magness' team was the first to isolate intestinal stem cells from mice in a U.S. lab.

The UNC researchers say that their study is "a leap forward", as all these years scientists had to resort exclusively to findings made from mouse models. Despite our biological similarities with mice, the lack of studies on human tissue had prevented scientists from exploring new therapeutic approaches using these cells.

"While the information we get from mice is good foundational mechanistic data to explain how this tissue works, there are some opportunities that we might not be able to pursue until we do similar experiments with human tissue," said Adam D. Gracz, co-author of the study

Diagram showing the small intestine

During the study, the researchers experimented on sections of human small intestine, leftovers from gastric bypass surgeries, and tried to see if their previous knowledge from mouse models could help them to find similar cells in human intestinal tissue. Specifically, they looked out for two proteins that are present in mouse intestinal stem cells, CD24 and CD44. They later found that both proteins were indeed present in the small intestine sections. Next, by using fluorescent tags they managed to isolate stem cells from their small intestine samples.

Furthermore, they discovered that the intestinal tissue actually contained two distinct populations of stem cells. One of them is active and the other one acts as a back up, replenishing the active ones when they are damaged.

Now the researchers aim to continue studying these cells to answer several questions regarding their potential uses and applications:

"Can we expand these cells outside of the body to potentially provide a cell source for therapy? Can we use these for tissue engineering? Or to take it to the extreme, can we genetically modify these cells to cure inborn genetic disorders or inflammatory bowel disease? Those are some questions that we are going to explore in the future." said Magness.

Gracz, A., Fuller, M., Wang, F., Li, L., Stelzner, M., Dunn, J., Martin, M., & Magness, S. (2013). CD24 and CD44 Mark Human Intestinal Epithelial Cell Populations with Characteristics of Active and Facultative Stem Cells STEM CELLS DOI: 10.1002/stem.1391

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