WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists working in mice said they had found a way to identify master cells in the brain and grow them in large batches -- a potential way of helping patients grow their own brain tissue transplants.
The scientists said they had found a process to make the cells multiply, which would be crucial in fighting degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's and Huntington's.
The study is one of many focusing on stem cells -- the elusive progenitor cells that are found in all tissue and in blood, but which are difficult to identify.
In theory, once isolated and cultivated with the right compounds and under the right conditions, they should be able to grow out into large lines, or batches, of the desired tissue.
These so-called adult stem cells could come from a patient himself so no donor and no immune system suppressing drugs would be needed.
"We've isolated for the first time what appears to be the true candidate stem cell," said Dennis Steindler of the University of Florida, who worked on the study.
"There have been other candidates but in this case we used a special microscope that allows us to watch living cells over long periods of time through a method called live-cell microscopy, so we've actually witnessed the stem cell give rise to new neurons. Possibly a different method may come up to identify the mother of all stem cells, but we're confident this is it."
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said they also found an efficient way to make the cells multiply.
"It's like an assembly line to manufacture and increase the number of brain cells," said Dr. Bjorn Scheffler, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida who led the study.
"We can basically take these cells and freeze them until we need them. Then we thaw them, begin a cell-generating process, and produce a ton of new neurons."
The hope is to use such cells to treat brain disease.
"As far as regenerating parts of the brain that have degenerated, such as in Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and others of that nature, the ability to regenerate the needed cell type and placing it in the correct spot would have major impact," said Dr. Eric Holland, a neurosurgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York who specializes in the treatment of brain tumors, but who did not work on the study.
Such cells may also play an important role in cancer, so understanding how they work is important, Holland said.
Another potential source of stem cells comes from early human embryos, either taken from fertility clinics or made using cloning technology and perhaps a patient's own genetic material.