Search for body's 'repair kit' is medicine's Holy Grail

The importance of the latest study into brain repair is the power it gives scientists to pin-point the vital stem cells that are capable of developing into mature nerve cells.

The importance of the latest study into brain repair is the power it gives scientists to pin-point the vital stem cells that are capable of developing into mature nerve cells.

If scientists can harness stem cells in the brain it offers the prospect of regenerating nerve tissues that would otherwise remain damaged for life. It could lead to effective treatments and even cures for chronic debilitating conditions from inherited disorders such as Huntington's chorea to severe brain damage resulting from traffic accidents.

Stem cells, especially those in the brain, are one of the most enigmatic elements of the body. Scientists know they must exist but they do not have an easy way of finding and harnessing them.

Neuroscientists have also come to realise that the brain has an in-built mechanism of regeneration which uses stem cells. They hope to exploit this natural repair kit in future to mend damaged nerves.

For more than 20 years, stem cells have been the Holy Grail of medicine because of their ability to replicate almost indefinitely before they develop into one of the 200 or so specialised tissues of the body, from blood to nerves.

Yet it was only in 1998 that researchers published the first studies showing that it was possible to extract stem cells from human embryos and grow them in the laboratory.

Stem cells derived from early embryos are known to have the greatest ability to develop or "differentiate" into any of the specialised tissues of the body.

The stem cells found in adults have a somewhat similar though muted power of development. Those in the brain for instance are believed to be primarily programmed to turn into brain cells, while those in the bone marrow are designed to develop into blood cells.

If stem cells can be isolated and grown in the laboratory it offers hope of stimulating them with growth factors so they become the mature cells needed for transplant surgery, whether for treating a damaged heart or a defective brain.

However, one of the potential difficulties in using stem cells for transplant medicine is the possibility of tissue rejection. One way around this would be to clone an embryo from a skin cell and use the embryonic stem cells from this cloned embryo.

Work in this area is severely curtailed in many countries, including the US, which has banned the use of government funds for such research. This is one of the reasons why there is such interest in adult stem cells.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Implementation and Support Consultant

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A consultant is required to pro...

Recruitment Genius: Office Assistant

£12675 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Assistant is required...

Recruitment Genius: Lead Software Developer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler / Probate Assistant

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler/Probate ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn