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Stem Cells and Getting Old

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Author: Travis Block | Category: Beyond The Bench | Biomedical Engineering (Ph.D.) | January 18, 2016

After returning from the World Stem Cell Summit in Atlanta, GA last week, I want to share a bit of the work I am doing that was presented at the summit. I study stem cells as an intervention for aging at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.

As we (people) get older, we start to have a lot of problems. Just about everyone suffers from some kind of age-related degenerative diseases. 

I like to think of these diseases as wear and tear diseases, because they are conditions where our bodies fail to keep up with routine maintenance. When this happens, we would like to be able to treat these conditions by adding more of our bodies' maintenance workers (stem cells). This is called regenerative medicine. 

It is intuitive to think that we could treat degeneration with regeneration. However, this approach has a major problem. When scientists work with stem cells in laboratories, they typically get the cells from young, healthy people. 

These cells are often capable of amazing things that lead us to believe we can do anything with stem cells.

 When doctors want to use stem cells, their patients are typically older and less healthy. It turns out, so are their stem cells. Simply put, the cells we use in practice are not as powerful as the cells that are typically studied.

The image at the top of the page shows stem cells from a 21 year old male (left) and a 72 year old male (right). They look very different and they function in very distinct manners as well. 

Young stem cells can grow very quickly and form many types of tissue. Elderly stem cells grow very slowly and often are very inefficient at making bone or cartilage or other types of tissue. 

Therefore, there is a strong motivation to find a way to rejuvenate stem cells from elderly people, so that we can use them to treat degenerative diseases. The focus of my dissertation has been to develop a procedure to achieve this purpose.

What we have found is that one of the most powerful predictors of stem cell function (how good the cells are) is their morphology (what they look like). I use their morphology and a molecule expressed on the surface of cells during embryonic development to identify potent stem cells in elderly stem cell populations. 

I separate the cells that express that surface molecule and exhibit the youthful morphology and then place those cells into an environment where they can thrive in order to grow more of them. This environment is supplied to me by a local company, StemBioSys. By first isolating the healthy cells and then growing them in an environment that helps them thrive, we can grow tremendous numbers of healthy stem cells from elderly people.

With this strategy, I can imagine a future where an 80 year old would go to his doctor. That doctor would a sample of his stem cells, pick out the cells that look like they are still 18, and then grow a tremendous number of them. That 80 year old could then receive regenerative medicine treatments using his own cells that look and behave like they are still 18. 

This could be a powerful strategy for slowing and reversing age-related diseases.

The "Beyond The Bench" series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

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