Stem cells are a kind of cell that are able to divide or self-renew indefinitely. This allows the stem cell to generate into a range of different cell types for the organ that they originate from, or they may even be able to regenerate the whole organ.
Because of this, scientists are interested in using stem cells in a range of medical treatments, to replenish damaged tissue in the brain or skin, or as a treatment for diseases of the blood.
In adults, these stem cells have been found in tissues such as the brain, bone marrow, blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, skin and liver. Adult stem cells only become â€œactivatedâ€ and start dividing and generating new cells when their host tissue becomes damaged by disease or injury.
A more potent kind of stem cell is found in human embryos â€“ this type has the unique ability to grow into any kind of cell in the human body. But using these cells in scientific research is controversial â€“ and illegal in some countries â€“ as harvesting them requires the destruction of a fertilized human egg (a â€œblastocystâ€) that has not had the chance to develop into a baby.
Stem cells can be grown in laboratories using animal proteins, but these cannot be used in the treatment of humans. An alternative method â€“ growing stem cells on other human cells â€“ is risky, as the cells could be contaminated and may transmit disease to the patient.
Carbon nanotube scaffolding
Now, Prof. Peter Donovan from the University of California and a team of scientists at the University of Surrey in the UK have developed a new method for cultivating stem cells, which involves using carbon â€œnanotubesâ€ as a â€œscaffoldâ€ from which human stem cells can be grown.
Dr. Alan Dalton, senior lecturer from the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey, says:
â€œWhile carbon nanotubes have been used in the field of biomedicine for some time, their use in human stem cell research has not previously been explored successfully.â€
This scaffolding imitates the supporting cells in the human body that stem cells would have been grown on. The creation of this synthetic cell structure now allows stem cells effective in humans to be grown safely in the laboratory.
The researchers think that this new development will open doors to â€œrevolutionary stepsâ€ in replacing tissue after injury or disease.
Dr. Dalton says:
â€œSynthetic stem cell scaffolding has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people suffering from diseases such as Parkinsonâ€™s, diabetes and heart disease, as well as vision and hearing loss. It could lead to cheaper transplant treatments and could potentially one day allow us to produce whole human organs without the need for donors.â€
Recently, ishonest reported on a study finding that stem cells could be harvested from tissue discarded in routine hip replacement operations.
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