The Promise of Stem Cells

Date (2015-03-12 )

Surprising insights and the latest ground-breaking advances in stem cell research are put under the microscope at this year's Cambridge Science Festival, prescription which started on Monday and runs for two weeks.

The potential use of stem cells to treat disease, including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer, and the possibilities for cell, tissue and organ repair are astounding. During the Festival fortnight, a series of events will investigate these uses and showcase the incredible world of stem cell therapy.

Dementia affects over 8,000 people in Cambridgeshire, but the region is also home to some of the world's leading dementia researchers. During a series of short talks on Tuesday 17 March, Dementia research in Cambridge: from bench to bedside, Dr Laura Phipps from Alzheimer's Research UK, the event sponsors, will reveal how stem cells are being used to screen new treatments.

Explaining more about the process, Dr Phipps said: "Scientists in Cambridge are internationally renowned for their pioneering use of stem cells to tackle some of the big questions in dementia research. Researchers are able to take skin cells donated from people with Alzheimer's disease and, using cutting-edge stem cell techniques developed by Nobel Prize winner, Professor Sir John Gurdon, transform them into nerve cells in a dish in the laboratory. These nerve cells develop key physiological features of Alzheimer's in the dish, allowing scientists to study the disease in minute detail and screen potential new treatments.

"It is exactly this kind of innovative research that is now getting underway at the Alzheimer's Research UK Stem Cell Research Centre, an ambitious collaboration of clinicians at University College London and stem cell specialists here at the University of Cambridge. Next week's event is a great chance to hear more about this initiative from dementia researchers using stem cells, as well as a range of other approaches, to combat dementia."

On Monday 16 March, in Using embryonic stem cells to understand early development, researchers will explain how embryonic stem (ES) cells derived from early mouse embryos can turn into any bodily tissue; essentially, they can be cultured and placed in a host embryo to make a chimaera. This technology is used to investigate how ES cells differentiate into specific lineages to give greater understanding of congenital defects and how they might be avoided . It also provides surprising insights, as Dr Jenny Nichols will show, into how the embryo responds and regulates its development to accommodate these cells.

Dr Nichols said: "The early mammalian embryo has to make new tissues within the womb to forge a link with the maternal circulation, but at the same time, protect a group of cells poised to respond to instructions for development of the foetus.

"In the mouse, these cells are segregated just before the embryo implants in the uterus. Amazingly, they can be captured and propagated in this poised state, using special permissive culture conditions, providing an opportunity for genetic modification; after which, they can be returned to a host embryo to resume normal development in the form of a chimaera.

"This technology has been widely used in biomedical research for many years, but not much is known about the process of integration of the cultured cells into the host embryo. We have been studying this phenomenon using live imaging and found that the embryo has a surprising level of control over the incoming cells."

Other events relating to stem cells during the Science Festival, include:

Saturday 14 March and Sunday 22 March – Stem cell discoveries. Visitors can find out about the amazing world of stem cells, watch short stem cell films, take part in hands-on stem cell-themed activities, and talk to researchers working in the field about the latest advances.

Tuesday 17 March – Too much information: how stem cells cope with information overload. Embryonic stem cells can either make more copies of themselves or differentiate to form any cell type in the body. How cells make the decision to differentiate, and which cell type to differentiate into, is controlled by which genes they turn on, and which they turn off. Dr Brian Hendrich's lab studies how precise control of gene expression allows cells to make these decisions.

Wednesday 18 March – Blood and leukaemia stem cells: the root of all (evil). Dr Brian Huntly's lab studies leukaemia development, in particular acute myeloid leukaemia. They are interested in how normal blood stem cell function is subverted by mutations during leukaemia development and how these mutations alter the expression of genes. Their work aims to improve leukaemia treatment outcomes through the identification of critical molecules and therapies that target them.

Thursday 19 March – Stem cells: unravelling brain disease. Brains are composed equally of grey and white matter. White matter provides a data superhighway linking 100 billion neurons in the grey matter, the brain's computational area. White matter damage can cause disability; but, unlike grey matter, it can be repaired. Dr Thóra Káradóttir explores the brain's superhighways and how they might be repaired when diseased.