Friday, June 23, 2006

Stem Cells and Motor Function

A recent study conducted by Douglas Kerr presents more evidence with the growing mountain of data as to why stem cell research is vital and necessary. (link: Neurons from Stem Cells) The article basically reports that Kerr and his team developed stem cells until they became neural precursors. Before I go any further, I just want to explain what a stem cell is and why there is so much fervor over it. I'm not a scientist but I have a basic background in science and read a few books on it, so if I make any mistakes just correct me. Stem cells are cells that are essentially undivided and undifferentiated, meaning that they haven't "decided" what type of cell they will end up becoming. Usually stem cells are taken from either the placenta or umbilical cord after birth or they are taken from an recently fertilized embroyo with around 50 to 150 cells already divided. These cells can then be therapeutically cloned so as to produce more stem cells and thereby have a chain of cells which are a genetic match of the donor organism. In short this process of cloning involves removing the nucleus of an egg and then replacing that nucleus with DNA from another organism. The egg will then be cultivated with the new DNA and begin to divide as if fertilized. After a week or so the cells are now now as totipotent stem cells as they can become ANY type of cell. As they divide and begin to become more differentiated they can be used for limited purposes. That is a very rudimentary overview of stem cells and at this stage it is about as much as I know, hopefully I'll read some more on it and gain a larger body of knowledge.

So in this study, Kerr took the eggs of a rat and cultivated them using the above method until they developed into neural precursors, which basically means cells that haven't developed into specific nerve cells or neurons. Kerr developed about 60,000 of these cells and injected them into the spinal column of paralyzed rats. These precursors developed into motor neurons and develop more based on the types of chemicals that they interact with. Essentially what occurred is that these cells, reformed the a few nerve connections in the spinal cord. These reformed connections even though only 1% gave the paralyzed rats partial recovery and movement. Consider the impact, now there is a possibility that paralyzed people might be able to move and regain control over their bodies. To put it into perspective, this was only done on rats cells and haven't been attempted on human cells yet. Next time, I'll discuss the controversy revolving around the stem cell debate.

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