just a hair away from stem cell therapy
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Just a hair away from stem cell therapy

New research suggests that in the future, stem cell research might rely on nothing more controversial than a plucked hair. Scientists have proven that stem cells found in mouse hair follicles can develop into brain cells and other cell types. This finding suggests that human hair follicles might be a new and uncontroversial source for these regenerative cells. Because stem cells can be developed into any cell type, scientists hope to one day use them to fight degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart failure.

Lead researcher Richard Hoffman of San Diego’s AntiCancer, Inc. research company has previously proven that the stem cells that create hair follicles are very similar to the stem cells that become the brain. Hoffman’s current study was able to isolate stem cells from hair follicles and steer them toward becoming neurons (brain cells) and muscle cells.

Using mice, researchers isolated stem cells from the so-called “bulge area” of whisker follicles and cultured them. After one week, those stems cells began to develop into neural cells. As the weeks went on, the stem cells developed into skin cells, smooth muscle cells, and skin color pigment-producing cells. According to an article published in the March 28, 2005 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these same hair follicle stem cells matured into neurons when transplanted under the skin of the mice.

Hoffman is hopeful that human hair follicle stem cells might be sufficiently plastic to make other types of cells under human direction, opening up vast areas of possibility for therapeutic research. Citing the ease of harvesting hair follicles as opposed to other methods, Hoffman believes his research could help eliminate the political debate currently centered on embryonic stem cell research.

Hoffman stresses his current research is just the beginning of a long road. He and his team are now attempting to produce large numbers of cells from hair stem cells for testing. The next step will be to discover how easily the stem cells can be made coaxed to form different types of cells.

Deryl Troyer, a professor at Kansas State University, is excited by Hoffman’s research, noting that he provided encouraging evidence that primitive stem cells can be found in post-natal tissue. Though Hoffman’s work was done on mice, Troyer believes that human hair follicles likely contain stem cells with similar potential. If so, treatments for neurodegenerative diseases could be treated using cells from the hair follicles of the patient, eliminating the fear of a rejection of the cells by the patient’s immune system.

Dr. Eva Mezey of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is less confident, citing the substantial differences between mouse and human hair follicles. Stating that earlier researchers had already noted the presence of stem cells in hair follicles, Mezey expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of Hoffman’s paper. Even so, Mezey did express support for the possibilities raised by Hoffman- “I do believe in plasticity, so it would not be a surprise if these stem cells could become neural cells, given the right environmental cues."

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