Stem Cells From Cadavers
October 17, 2012

New Method Harvests Stem Cells From Cadavers

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Stem cell research, as promising as it may be, has always run into some controversial matters of ethics. As such, research into these stem cells and their relatively untapped potential could be hampered by these legal and political roadblocks. Now new research has discovered a method of harvesting pockets of cells from the scalps and brain linings of recently deceased humans then repurposing them as stem cells. With this new method, stem cells could only be a trip to the morgue away.

Armed with these stem cells, scientists could develop new cell therapies as well as gain a better understanding of developmental disorders such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The trouble now, according to Ronald D.G. McKay of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is knowing which stem cells come from embryos and which come from adult, mature human cells. Speaking with ABC News, McKay explained that there are big differences between the stem cells and so far scientists don´t know enough about the two to accurately distinguish them.

Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in LaJolla, California, who led the research, agrees.

“We can´t look in a dish at a mixed population [of cells] and say ℠That is a stem cell,´” he said, also speaking with ABC News. “Different people have different ideas.”

One broadly accepted definition of stem cells, according to Ira Black with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, is an immature cell that can duplicate itself into different types of mature cells.

By using growth factors linked with stem cell growth, Gage and team were able to collect cells from 146 brain donors and grow other, mature stem cells from them.

"We were able to culture living cells from deceased individuals on a larger scale than ever done before," said researcher Thomas Hyde, a neuroscientist, neurologist and chief operating officer at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, speaking with LiveScience.

Previous studies had only been able to grow these mature stem cells from about 6 cadavers. When the scientists began their attempts to harvest and repurpose these cells from the donors, the bodies had been dead for nearly 2 days. To preserve the still-living cells, these cadavers were kept cool in a morgue, but not frozen, according to LiveScience.

As a result of their research, Gage and his team discovered that cells taken from the brain were 16 times more likely to successfully grow into mature stem cells than cells taken from the scalp. These results were expected, however, as bacteria and fungus can deteriorate and eat away at these fragile, still-living cells. The scalp, according to the researchers, is more prone to carry these contaminants.

With these new, reprogrammed stem cells, scientists will be able to mimic and replace defective cells in the body, which may cause disorders. Cadavers are a great source for these cells, as they can be safely taken without harming any living persons or getting tangled up in the messy issue of embryos.

"For instance, we can compare neurons derived from fibroblasts with actual neurons from the same individual," said Hyde.

"It tells us about how reliable a given method for deriving neurons from fibroblasts is. That can be crucial if, for example, you want to create dopamine-making neurons to treat someone with Parkinson's disease."

"By understanding what goes wrong with the brain cells in these individuals, we could perhaps help fix that."