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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?


Endometrium
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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HIV Does More Than Mess With Your Immune System August 19, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Stem Cells, Think About It.
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Laboratory 2You’ve probably already heard of the human immunodeficiency virus, also referred to as HIV. It’s a disease that is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal fluid. HIV infects cells in your immune system and can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There is no cure and immune system failure occurs from secondary infections – things as seemingly minor as a common cold – because the body simply doesn’t have the tools to fight the infection.

HIV And Dementia

We’ve known for decades now that HIV damages a person’s immune system and we’ve even known that it can cause a certain type of dementia. A decline in a person’s cognitive functioning – beyond the normal decline that occurs with aging – is what constitutes dementia. Researchers knew that an HIV protein called gp120 was causing the loss of mature brain cells.

Gp120 Causes More Problems

A new study, however, is showing that gp120 causes even more damage. The work is being led by Stuart Lipton of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in San Diego, California. Not only does it destroy mature brain cells, but it also slows down the division of neural progenitor cells. What are those? These are a type of adult stem cell. If you’re not familiar with adult stem cells or you’ve forgotten my recent stem cell primer, you can read about what stem cells are and where they come from. These neural progenitor cells are believed to be very important in learning and memory, so by slowing them down, gp120 can really wreck havoc with a person’s mental functioning. To check this out, researchers exposed the neural progenitor cells in rats to the gp120 protein. What happened? It’s not good. The result was that 15 percent of the neural progenitor cells stopped dividing.

Laboratory Finding Out About This Stuff Is Important

By finding out which parts of the body – such as the brain – the gp120 protein influences, scientists can then try to identify the enzymes that are affected. Under laboratory conditions, Lipton and his colleagues were able to stop the action of the enzymes, so the gp120 protein would not work! This means that the neural progenitor cells can hopefully get a kick-start to divide again. The study and results were published in Cell Stem Cell.

Prevent And Treat

With HIV and AIDS threatening the health and lives of enormous numbers of people around the world, preventing transmission of HIV is vital. Also important are studies such as this one, which helps us learn about how HIV can affect other systems in the human body, so we can find new treatments. It’s definitely not the cure that we all dream of finding, but it is an important step in fighting the disease.

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Stem Cells For Beginners: Where Do They Come From? July 22, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Stem Cells, Think About It.
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This is the second part of my little series of blog entries that I’m calling Stem Cells For Beginners. You can still read part one, which is called What Are Stem Cells? I started this series because lets face it, stem cells are one complicated subject! They’re going to be talked about a lot more in the weird science blog and you will probably hear about them in the news as well. This series is a primer to give you enough information so that you can read new blog entries with ease and when you hear something on the news, it’ll be easier to follow what’s going on.

In part one, you learned that stem cells have the unique properties of being unspecialized, while still being able to differentiate into specialized cells. You also learned that they can proliferate, which means they multiply into perfect copies of themselves. That still doesn’t answer why there’s so much heated anger and controversy over stem cells. And I’ll tease you a bit by saying that we’re not quite there yet – this blog entry is going to cover where stem cells come from, which you need to understand before we can get into the controversy.

Stem Cell Differentiation Lets Break It Down

To understand why there’s so much emotion over stem cell use, we have to look at their sources – where they come from. So, grab yourself a glass of milk and a snack and get comfy at your computer for the next five minutes.

Embryonic Stem Cells

You’ve probably heard of an embryo? It’s the period of time from conception to around eight weeks of development. Well right at the beginning of an embryo’s development – just 4 or 5 days after it is created, it’s called a blastocyst. A blastocyst is a tiny little cluster of cells that has an inner cell mass. When you hear about embyronic stem cells, it means the cells are taken from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst. The picture above shows how the stem cells are cultured from the inner cell mass. If you remember from the first blog post in Stem Cells For Beginners, they are undifferentiated. You can see above where these undifferentiated stem cells then differentiate into the three specialized cells above. That was one of the unique things about stem cells.

Fetal Stem Cells

After eight weeks of growth, the embryo is called a fetus. The term fetal stem cells simply means that the stem cells are taken from the fetus.

Adult Stem Cells

Adult Stem Cells

You might have already guessed where these come from – adult stem cells are taken from adult tissues. You can see in the picture on the right here some of the places in the body that researchers have found adult stem cells. Researchers are still hoping to identify them in many more adult tissues.

Cord Blood Stem Cells

After a baby is born, its umbilical cord is detached. The umbilical cord and placenta both hold cord blood, which contains a valuable source of stem cells.

Your Knowledge Is Increasing!

So, now you know why stem cells are considered unique and you also know some of their sources – what next? Soon, we’ll see how embryonic, fetal, adult and cord blood stem cells are so different. And if you haven’t already gotten a hint at where the controversy comes in, you’ll definitely get some hints on my next blog post about stem cells. We’re almost up to the very controversial part of stem cell use. And I can tell you, it’s one rocky ride.

Credit: The National Academy of Sciences has kindly allowed the images to be reprinted on the weird science blog.  Check out the original link here called Understanding Stem Cells, courtesy of the National Academies Press in Washington, D.C.

Stem Cells For Beginners: What Are Stem Cells? July 17, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Stem Cells, Think About It.
12 comments

You’re going to be seeing a lot more info on stem cells in the weird science blog. Why? Partly because it’s an area I’m really excited about, so my passion and bias on the subject means it’s going to be a common source of banter here on the blog. Another reason is because it’s a hot topic amongst scientists. Where there are stem cells, there’s usually heaps of potential to treat disease and also a lot of controversy and political arguments.

One thing I’ve found is that it’s a topic many adults, teens and kids just don’t get. It’s confusing. It’s mind boggling. It’s complicated. Plus, people don’t understand why they even need to know anything about stem cells. I want to give what I hope is an easy primer on stem cells, so that you can get a basic grasp of what all this yapping and debating is about. You’ll see that scientists aren’t totally off their rockers for getting excited about a bunch of cells.

First, lets compare it to other cells. You probably already know that cells make up living organisms. What makes stem cells so special though? Well, they’ve got some unique and very fabulous properties that let them do nifty stuff.

Lab Vials Unspecialized

Stem cells are unspecialized cells. Think about your heart. It has specialized cells that get it beating. But these cells and all the other specialized cells in your body are created from unspecialized cells. Those are stem cells!

Specialized Isn’t Always Better

But isn’t something specialized better, you might ask? Not necessarily. This brings us to another important feature of stem cells. Because a stem cell is unspecialized, it can give rise to loads of specialized cells like your heart cell. It has all this potential to become almost anything! A heart cell has a specialized function and so it doesn’t give rise to a brain cell. A stem cell, however, can give rise to both heart and brain cells. Here’s a fancy word you can impress your parents and friends with-differentiation. When a stem cell develops into a specialized cell like that heart cell, it differentiates. So, we’d say that a stem cell differentiated into a heart cell.

Microscope Even More Special

Hold up! One more cool thing about stem cells! Stem cells can proliferate. Say what? This is one of those fancy words that just means it can multiply. Stem cells can multiply over and over again while still remaining unspecialized. Or, under the right conditions, they can be coaxed to differentiate into those specialized cells I mentioned earlier.

Unique

So, stem cells are obviously unique because they don’t have a specialized function and they can create copies of themselves or develop into those specialized cells that do stuff like make your heart beat or let your brain send messages. So what? What’s all that got to do with diseases? On top of that, what’s with all the controversy? These answers I’m saving for my next blog entry on stem cells. In the meantime, you can see a post I’ve done on stem cells and hair here. You can also see the scienceblogs website to read about the very funny email I received from a balding parent whose daughter read that post.

Gone Today, Back Tomorrow June 4, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Genetics, Human Body, Stem Cells, Tough Stuff.
4 comments

Hair follicles, that is. Scientists used to think that once a person lost their hair follicles and went bald, the follicles could never be replaced again. Nope. According to a study by some very curious scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, there’s still hope for your balding dad.

Here’s What Happens

Your head contains thousands of hair follicles and each follicle can grow a single hair. The follicles themselves are actually kinda old because they are produced by an embryo, which is the earliest stage of human development. Scientists used to think that once an embryo had produced follicles, that was it. No more follicles could be made later. So once the follicles were damaged or lost, hairless forever!

This is where a gene comes in to save the day. Your genes are something you inherit from your parents. They are a unique set of instructions that determine the color of your eyes and lots of other traits you have. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found a gene called Wnt. This gene not only helps wounds heal, but it can also help make new hair follicles.

The Experiment

So you’re maybe wondering how this new gene can help those damaged hair follicles in your bald dad? Well, lets take a look at what scientists did in the experiment. They removed little bits of the outer skin layer, also called the epidermis, in mice. Remember how I said the Wnt gene helps heal wounds and produce new hair follicles? Well, after that small piece of skin was removed from each mouse, a wound was left.

Now, two really fascinating things happened.

The first thing was that when the wound started to heal, new follicles began to grow. Did the Wnt gene do it alone? No way- something else helped. The second thing is that scientists figured out stem cells were responsible for this growth. These are very special cells found all over your body that can multiply into many more cells. When the scientists removed a little piece of skin from each mouse- creating a wound- this was like a signal for the Wnt gene to get those stem cells to wake up and start working.

But Wait, There’s More

To make sure they really had something that worked, scientists tried to block the Wnt gene. What do you think happened? If you guessed that no new hair follicles were produced, you are right! Without the Wnt gene to activate them, the stem cells didn’t create new hair follicles. And since scientists like to meddle so much, they decided to try increasing the gene’s activity. What now? If you guessed that more hair follicles were produced, you are right again.

Stem Cells

Run That By Me One More Time?

It’s like a series of alarm clocks. The wound wakes up the Wnt gene, which then wakes up the stem cells. Those stem cells can now get busy fixing the wound and creating hair follicles. Block the Wnt gene and the stem cells won’t do their thing. Boost the Wnt gene’s power and the stem cells work overtime.

Is Dad Gonna Grow A Full Head Of Hair?

Maybe one day, but not anytime soon. Scientists still need to figure out how to safely create a wound on a bald spot and then power up the Wnt gene. For now, you can tell dad not to throw out that hairpiece just yet. Remind him it could be worse- he could be losing his teeth.

Photo Credit: George Cotsarelis, University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine. The blue lines in the picture show copies of cells originating from stem cells. The cells move toward the middle part of the wound to heal it quickly and produce hair follicles. It looks gross but once it has healed, there’s almost no scarring and better yet, there’s hair!

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