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Monthly Period Woes Might Have A Bonus November 19, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Stem Cells, Tough Stuff.
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Some of my readers may not yet be menstruating while others have experienced their monthly period for years now (boys, you’re obviously excluded!). For a minority of girls, it’s a dreaded, monthly process of cramps but for most women, it’s accepted as just a necessary occurrence that allows us to experience pregnancy. It’s also a normal and natural part of growing up. But wait, menstrual blood might just have another purpose now!

Microscopic Endometrium Slide

Ever wondered what your endometrium looks like under a microscope? Well, wonder no more and have a look at the picture above!

Stem Cells

My regular readers already know that stem cells are one of my favorite topics but let me tell you – I didn’t quite expect to learn what I did when I read one of the most recent studies on stem cells. It has been suggested that menstrual blood might be a viable source of stem cells. If you want to refresh your memory on stem cells, then check out my stem cells primers: What Are Stem Cells? and Where Do They Come From?

Credit: U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program.

Endometrial Stem Cells

Two different research groups have found endometrial stem cells in menstrual blood. If you’ve forgotten, the endometrium lines the uterus. Each month, it is shed during menstruation and then prepares for a fertilized egg by growing into a 5 mm thick lining over the course of approximately one week. The lining itself has literally billions of cells, which researchers have been keen to use as a potential source of stem cells. An investigative lady named Caroline Gargett of Monash University in Victoria, Australia originally identified endometrial stem cells in the uterine lining. Unfortunately, actually removing the cells is a tricky process and also very invasive! Finding endometrial stem cells in menstrual blood, however, makes this process a whole lot easier!

First Things First

So how do the researchers actually know that the cells they have found truly are stem cells? If you think back, you will remember from previous posts that I talked about the special properties of stem cells. The cells identified by the researchers have these special properties, which means they can proliferate and differentiate. Struggling to recall what those two words mean? It means they can make copies of themselves and they can also become specialized cells.

Two Studies Are Better Than One

Generally speaking, the more studies done on the same thing that show the same results, the better! There is so much human error that can happen in a scientific study, so it makes the results more believable when different research groups obtain the same, or similar findings.

Julie Allickson, a scientist at Cryo-Cell International in Florida, identified endometrial stem cells in menstrual blood but her work still has yet to be published, which means it hasn’t stood up to the peer review process. According to Allickson, the cells she identified showed the characteristic properties of stem cells.

In another study, Xiaolong Meng and his colleagues at the Bio-Communications Research Institute in Kansas analyzed cells taken from the menstrual blood of two women. What did they find? They found that the cells showed characteristics of stem cells, such as proliferating quickly as well as differentiating into more specialized cells such as muscle and nerve.

What Now?

Identifying sources of adult stem cells is really important because it gives us more options for using stem cells to treat disease. Another issue is the danger associated with removing stem cells from the body. If you think about your bone marrow or uterine lining itself and then imagine surgery to remove those tiny cells, it’s really invasive! There are all sorts of risks associated with surgery, such as infection and side effects from anesthesia. If scientists can harvest stem cells from something like menstrual blood, it means fewer risks and complications for the patient. Another dilemma is the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells – many people are against the use of embryonic stem cells, which means that finding valuable sources of adult stem cells is an important alternative!

Your Body Can Save Lives

I think one of the fascinating things about finding new sources of adult stem cells is that your own body has the potential to save lives. Under the right conditions, your body’s stem cells can be coaxed to differentiate into specialized cells that could be used to treat a range of diseases. It’s also ironic, in a way, to think that each month menstruation occurs when your body doesn’t conceive a new life – yet your menstrual blood, rich in endometrial stem cells, has the potential to save lives. It’s one more thing that makes being a woman really cool!

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1. Kimiko - November 19, 2007

No luck for girls who don’t menstruate :(

2. Miss Weird Scientist - November 19, 2007

Yes, that’s true. Some women don’t menstruate and the reasons for this are numerous. Thanks for the comment. It might be a good topic for a future blog entry to talk about the reasons women don’t menstruate – from the common experience of menopause to different health conditions, malnutrition…the list goes on. :)

Also, researchers have identified stem cells in many adult tissues now – not just menstrual blood, so even a non-menstruating woman still has potentially life-saving stem cells in her body. Men too!

3. sulz - November 19, 2007

other than menopause, how can women not menstruate? does that mean they can’t have kids? does this affect their oestrogen levels?

i haven’t read much about stem cells, except that many parents keep the umbilical cord after the mother has given birth because it is rich with stem cells and can apparently cure lots of diseases or something like that. i wasn’t reading properly obviously, haha. :P

4. Miss Weird Scientist - November 19, 2007

The list is enormous but I’ll touch on some of the reasons why women don’t menstruate (amenorrhea). Sometimes, women who have normal periods stop doing so and other times, they never begin menstruating at all. In the latter, it’s usually a genetic/chromosomal abnormality. In the former, it can be something like eating disorders, where malnutrition can precede loss of periods. In fact, amenorrhea is one of the criteria used to diagnose anorexia nervosa. Other things that can affect a woman’s cycle are things like stress, although I’m guessing your question is maybe directed at less temporary stuff. Endocrine disorders are another possible cause of amenorrhea.

Estrogen levels are often affected, depending on the reason for amenorrhea. In cases like eating disorders, when malnutrition is corrected and weight comes up, hormones will usually normalize. With things like endocrine disorders, yes – they certainly can and do lead to infertility but there are medications to treat the conditions and infertility. It’s tough to answer your question because it really depends on the specific condition!

You actually did read properly! ;) Studies on cord blood stem cells show potential for treating conditions such as heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. They’re also a useful source because they’re less likely to be rejected by the immune system of the person receiving a cord blood stem cell transplant (in comparison with something like a bone marrow transplant). They’re essentially a ‘younger’ and ‘fresher’ source of stem cells compared to adult stem cells. Anyways, I’ll stop there because if I keep yapping away, you’ll end up dreaming about stem cells. Hehe.

5. jenn - November 20, 2007

don’t like having a period but it’s crazy that there’s stem cells in it! I wonder what other weird places on the body have stem cells

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