Burgers Made in the Lab

in vitro burger

Would you eat a burger that was made in a laboratory? (Photo credit: POOL/Reuters/Corbis)

A burger patty made in a laboratory sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. However, fiction became fact last month when Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands unveiled the first hamburger patty made from stem cells for a taste-test event held in London, England.

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Stem Cells Isolated From Surgery Leftovers

Scientists at England’s University of Bristol have extracted stem cells from sections of vein removed for heart bypass surgery. Their research indicates that these stem cells can stimulate new blood vessel growth—meaning they could be useful in repairing heart tissue damaged during a heart attack. Dr. Paolo Madeddu, Professor of Experimental Cardiovascular Medicine and his research team in the Bristol Heart Institute (BHI) at the University of Bristol recently published the results of their research in the journal Circulation.

“This is the first time that anyone has been able to extract stem cells from sections of vein left over from heart bypass operations,” Dr. Paolo Madeddu said in a press release published by the university. “These cells might make it possible for a person having a bypass to also receive a heart treatment using their body’s own stem cells.”

During heart bypass surgery, surgeons remove a portion of a patient’s leg vein. This vein is then grafted onto the blocked or narrowing coronary artery and helps restore blood flow to the heart. During the procedure, surgeons typically remove a longer length of leg vein than is needed.

In their research, scientists isolated stem cells from the leftover veins donated by heart bypass patients. The researchers inserted these stem cells into mice and were able to stimulate new blood vessel growth in injured leg muscles.

Repairing a damaged heart is the holy grail for heart patients,” Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, stated in the press release. “The discovery that cells taken from patients own blood vessels may be able to stimulate new blood vessels to grow in damaged tissues is a very encouraging and important advance. It brings the possibility of cell therapy for damaged hearts one step closer and, importantly, if the chemical messages produced by the cells can be identified, it is possible that drugs could be developed to achieve the same end.

Funding for this research was provided by the British Heart Foundation.

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Stem Cells Derived from Tissues Normally Discarded After Surgery

Researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil have determined that discarded fallopian tubes, removed during hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) or female sterilization procedures, may be an excellent source of stem cells.

In their study of discarded fallopian tubes, the researchers determined that immature stem cells collected from the tissues could differentiate into a variety of different body tissues. After harvesting the stem cells, the scientists were able to multiply the cell lines and make the stem cells develop into bone, cartilage, fat, and muscle cell lines.

Using human tissues such as fallopian tubes removed during surgeries which would otherwise be discarded provides a welcome alternative to the ethical dilemma related to the use of embryonic stem cells. Further research will be necessary before stem cells derived from discarded human tissue can be used in human medical treatments.

The results of the scientists’ research was published in the June 18 edition of the Journal of Translational Medicine. Scientists who contributed to the research include Tatiana Jazedje, Paulo M. Perin, Carlos E. Czeresnia, Mariangela Maluf, Silvio Halpern, Mariane Secco, Daniela F Bueno, Natassia M. Vieira, Eder Zucconi, and Mayana Zatz.

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Adult Stem Cells from Organism’s Own Bone Marrow

Researchers at Imperial College London have found a way to stimulate the release of adult stem cells from the organisms own bone marrow. Not only have the scientists found they can cause the release of the stem cells, they also can control which kinds of stem cells are released from bone marrow. This breakthrough may let a patients own stem cells be used in new therapeutic possibilities, such as repairing the patients heart damage or treating autoimmune diseases.

The researchers were able to selectively release two types of stem cells from bone marrow in rats: mesenchymal stem cells and endothelial progenitor cells. These two stem cell types can differentiate into different types of mature cells. Mesenchymal stem cells can differentiate and mature into bone or cartilage. Stimulating the release of these cells could help a patient repair broken bones or sports injuries. Mesenchymal stem cells also suppress the immune system. Therefore, releasing mesenchymal stem cells may help treat diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease. Endothelial progenitor cells can differentiate and mature into endothelial cells, such as those that make up blood vessels. The selective release of endothelial progenitor cells may allow patients to repair damage in their hearts and within their cardiovascular system.

Bone marrow releases both mesenchymal stem cells and endothelial progenitor cells naturally, and these stem cells are already known to help the body heal. This study has shown that certain drugs can stimulate healthy rats to release up to one hundred times more of these stem cells. Next, scientists will need to determine if large scale releases of mesenchymal stem cells and endothelial progenitor cells really do help the rats repair injuries and diseases faster than they would heal with the normal number of stem cells released. If the answer is yes, then scientists can begin studying the implications in humans, too.

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Researchers Use Stem Cells to Grow Bone

Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have found an effective way to stimulate human stem cells to make bone. This breakthrough is important because it allows for the development of new methods to repair bone tissue by using cell material from the patient undergoing treatment.

The key to the development of bone tissue from stem cells is the activation of the enzyme protein kinase A (referred to as PKA). PKA is in charge of many cell processes, such as the regulation of sugar, fats, and glycogen metabolism. PKA is activated by cyclic AMP (cAMP), a nucleotide derived from ATP. The addition of cAMP encourages the maturation of stem cells into bone cells.

This research, led by Dr. Jan de Boer, was conducted at the Tissue Regeneration Department of the University of Twentes Institute for Biomechanical Technology. The researchers worked together with scientists at University Medical Center Utrecht and Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

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Mature Skin Cells Yield Stem Cells

With all the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells, a new method of reprogramming adult cells could be one answer to the stem cell issue. And it couldn’t be more convenient. One day, you may look no farther than your own skin as a source of embryonic stem cells. Whitehead Institute scientists have transformed mature mouse skin cells into stem cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells in all ways. The genetically manipulated skin cells become embryonic stem cells without involving eggs or embryos.

Previously, it was thought that mature, differentiated cells could not act as unspecialized adult stem cells, and certainly not like embryonic stem cells. That is, scientists did not think that mature cells were capable of forming any, much less every, other cell type of the body. There was no evidence that a differentiated cell could do this. However, the genetically-manipulated mature mouse skin cells contradict that idea.

“These reprogrammed cells … are indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, senior author of the research. The genetically-modified cells have been shown to contribute to every kind of tissue, and have even developed into a mouse embryo. The DNA of the reprogrammed cells can also be transmitted to the next generation of mice, because the DNA was even found in the germ cells.

Researchers hope that one day they will be able to make versatile, therapeutic human stem cells from a simple skin biopsy.

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Extra Embryos: Destroy or Donate to Research?

One of the hottest debates in bioethics has been the use of human embryos in stem cell research. Infertility patients find themselves in the middle of this debate. Patients that use in vitro fertilization often have many frozen embryos in storage and must decide what to do with the embryos once they are done having children.

New research from Anne Lyerly of the Duke University Medical Center and Ruth Faden of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics indicates that patients see destroying their embryos or donating them to other infertile couples as unacceptable options. The patients find it especially uncomfortable to think of their genetic embryo developing into another couples child. However, these patients widely support donating their excess embryos to research, including developing embryonic stem cell lines.

Other studies have shown that 66 percent of the American public supports donating embryos for stem cell research. This support runs across all religious, political, and socioeconomic lines. The percentage of infertility patients that support donating of their frozen embryos for medical research or stem cell research is about the same.

In 2001, President George W. Bush restricted federally-funded embryonic stem cell research in the United States to 20 preexisting stem cell lines. No new embryonic stem cell lines can be produced using federal research funds. However, the limited cell lines have prompted concern from the scientific community that there just aren’t enough cell lines for safe, effective research. The frozen embryos remaining from infertility treatments are not created for research purposes and could potentially get around the federal funding restrictions. They may also solve a moral dilemma in the debate over how stem cells are made for research.

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Scandal over Falsified Results Roils the Stem Cell Research Community

In May of 2005, a paper by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang published in the prestigious journal Science reported that he and his team of South Korean scientists had successfully created eleven patient-specific stem cell lines cloned from the patient’s skin cells. Hwang was already a hero in South Korea for reportedly cloning human embryos a year earlier using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). As described in Science, this breakthrough suggested that stem cells could be successfully harvested from cloned embryos. In just two years, Hwang had become a world leader in the field of stem cell research. His research suggested that science was one major step closer to tailor-made stem cells for any human.

But all was not well. First came the news that female workers at Hwang’s own lab had supplied the embryos used to make the clones, a serious breach of professional ethics. Then came news that Hwang’s success in producing stem cells from eleven stem cell lines may have been too good to be true. By December of 2005, after members of Hwang’s own research team asserted that he falsified results, a panel set up by Seoul National University found that at least nine of the eleven stem cell lines Hwang claimed to have made did not exist. A month later, in January of 2006, the panel concluded that Hwang had not produced a single stem cell line at any time, prompting Science to retract Hwang’s articles from both 2004 and 2005.

Hwang made a tearful apology on live television in South Korea for the shame he had brought upon himself, his university, and the nation. But despite admitting that his results were fraudulent, he placed blame on the researchers who were responsible for creating the stem cell lines from the 101 cloned embryos that he says had been produced using SCNT. Hwang claimed that it was they who had cheated, and that he had been tricked into believing their results.

In May of 2006, Hwang and several other members of his research team were indicted for fraud, for breach of South Korean bioethics laws, and also for embezzling $3 million in funding.

The fall-out of the scandal not only shook the science community but the community of reviewers and writers who report on science. Science created its own panel to examine how its editorial process had failed to catch inaccuracies in Hwang’s paper. Science reporters, whom ordinary people rely on to read journals and translate technical articles into everyday language, vowed to pay closer attention to these journals and take more time to review results before publicizing science news in mainstream media.

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