Since the time that stem cells were discovered about fifty years ago, by Leroy Stevens, it has been a hot topic for research among the medical fraternity as it opened out a whole new scope and potential for treatment and effective cure in various diseases and conditions. In the beginning, the focus was more on embryonic stem cells (cells derived from embryos) as they were pluripotent, which in simple terms means that they are capable of regenerating into any type of cell in the body, for e.g. muscle, bone, cartilage, skin etc. Later, research on adult stem cells generated a great deal of excitement as the scientists found adult stem cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible.
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It was not long before highly potent embryonic stem cell research became controversial for reasons of ethical and safety concerns and the adult-derived stem cells were deemed less pliant and less able to transform into the stem cells that science is looking for to find a breakthrough in the treatments for disease.
A recent research study has found the exception in the stem cells of oral mucosa, the membrane that lines the inside of our mouths. They found that the cells did not seem to age along with the rest of our bodies, which could prove to be the breakthrough that science was hoping for. The study was conducted in a lab in Tel Aviv University’s Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine where Prof. Sandu Pitaru and his graduate students Keren Marinka-Kalmany, Sandra Treves, Miri Yafee and Yossi Gafni managed to successfully collect cells from oral mucosa and manipulate them into stem cells.
Prof. Pitaru discovered that the oral stem cells were as easy to manipulate as the embryonic stem cells, even though they were taken from the adult tissues. His research has opened new doors and possibilities to the stem cell research and potential therapies for various neurodegenerative, heart and autoimmune diseases, as well as diabetes.
According to Prof. Pitaru, dentists have been aware of some of the unique properties of the oral mucosa for a long time. "Wounds in the oral mucosa heal by regeneration, which means that the tissue reverts completely back to its original state," he says. “A wound that might take weeks to heal and leave a life-long scar on the skin will be healed in a matter of days inside the mouth, regardless of the patient's age. Except for the mouth, this type of healing usually occurs only in very young organisms and lower amphibians, such as the lizards that can regenerate their tails.”
In the study, Prof. Pitaru tried to determine if the oral mucosa could be a source for young, fetal-like stem cells with this unique healing ability. He says, “Even when obtained from an older patient these stem cells still have properties of young or primitive stem cells, which have a high capacity to be transformed into different tissues.” Prof. Pitaru and his team of researchers have already succeeded in coaxing the oral mucosa stem cells into becoming other significant cells, including bone, cartilage, muscle and even neurons.
According to Prof. Pitaru, “All this is derived from a miniscule biopsy of tissue, measuring 1 by 2 by 3 millimeters. We are able to grow trillions of stem cells from this small piece of tissue. The site of the biopsy is readily accessible, and patients experience minimal discomfort and require almost no healing time. This makes the mouth a convenient site for harvesting stem cells.”
This research study has provided a safe and effective alternative to implanting stem cells into various tissues in a person, as the threat of rejection of the implanted cells is removed, as compared to patients who are being treated with implanted embryonic stem cells in which case they are required to take immunosuppresant therapy and moreover the embryonic stem cells also have the potential to form tumors. However, this study is still in the pre-clinical trial stage where the stem cells are being implanted within small rodents and they are researching the impact of the innovative cells as a treatment for chronic heart failure, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's disease, and diabetes.
As the above mentioned diseases are most likely to affect the elderly, the oral mucosa stem cells would offer a more safe and effective alternative to both embryonic and adult-derived stem cells. Prof. Pitaru says. "Stem cells taken from the tissue of elderly patients have growth limitations and reduced functional capacities."
“Stem cells derived from the oral mucosa, however, avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors. Because they stay young, they behave as fetal cells, but there is no danger of rejection because they are taken directly from the patient. And they show no signs of developing the aggressive tumors that surround implantation of embryonic stem cells. With limited risk and high therapeutic potential, these cells could step in to fill a major medical need, Prof. Pitaru concludes.”
Original Feature Article Posted on Xomba