In this study, appearing in the March issue of Nature Biotechnology, the scientists then used the cells to partially repair damaged spinal cords in laboratory animals, re-growing small sections of the spinal cord that had been damaged. Doctors emphasize that tests in people with damaged spinal cords or other neurological conditions are a long ways off.
The researchers, led by neurologist Steven Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center, created the unique cells by introducing a gene called telomerase, which is responsible for the ability of stem cells to live indefinitely, into more specialized "progenitor" cells. In normal development, these progenitor cells give rise to very specific types of spinal neurons, but they do so for only short periods of time, because they lack the ability to continuously divide. With the newly added telomerase gene, the spinal progenitor cells were able to continuously divide while still producing only specific types of neurons. The outcome was a line of immortal progenitor cells, capable of churning out human spinal neurons indefinitely.
While stem cells receive a great deal of attention as a possible source of life-saving treatments, progenitor cells offer great potential, Goldman says. To be sure, progenitor cells lack a key feature of stem cells: Their potential to become nearly any type of cell. But what progenitor cells lack in potential, they make up for with commitment: They have already "decided" exactly what type of cell to become in the body, an advantage when treating a disease where one specific cell type is at risk. A patient with P
Contact: Tom Rickey
University of Rochester Medical Center