DURHAM, N.C. — Stem cell research is taking a giant leap forward. Doctors have long used umbilical cord blood, rich in stem cells, to correct rare heart, brain and liver defects in children.
Duke researchers now have proof that stem cells are at the root of the cure. They are hot on the trail of how stem cells transform into cells of the brain, spinal cord, liver or heart.
Dr. Kirsten Crapnell knows that is exactly what happened in the damaged heart cells of a 4-year-old boy who died recently. He had a rare metabolic disorder and received a stem cell transplant from a female donor. The boy died of an unrelated fungal infection.
"I was told to look for female cells within the myocytes in the heart," Krapnell said. "By looking at the cells ... we could see there were female cells within the heart of this male patient."
Stem cells, harvested from umbilical cord blood, can be injected directly into damaged heart tissue. Over time, the stem cells actually become heart muscle cells. Clinicians believe the same thing may happen with other organs.
"It also helps disease in the brain and in the liver and in the bones and cartilage and the eyes," Dr. Joanne Kurtzburg said.
The challenge now is to see if certain chemicals can force stem cells into different cell lines in a laboratory culture dish.
Dr. Jennifer Hall is trying to turn stem cells into brain cells.
"The possibilities, thoertically, are endless. It's just going to take a lot of hard work and persistence to make it happen," said Hall, a surgical research fellow.
It all opens up a world of possibilities for patients in the future.
"I think what this does do is demonstrate that cells can be used as therapy, and that I think in the next couple of decades, cellular therapy is going to be the new advance in medicine," Kurtzberg said.
This week, Duke researchers announced they have successfully taken adult stem cells from human fat harvested from liposuction procedures and turned them into different cell types. Researchers are still a long way from using these cells as therapies in humans.