Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Swapping Bad Cells with Good

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Swapping Bad Cells with Good

Article excerpt

In a disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (also called Lou Gehrig's disease)--one that is always fatal and that has a long history of research-resistant biology--finding a proof of principle in animal models is significant. Johns Hopkins University researchers report that transplanting a new line of stem cell--like cells into rat models of the disease clearly shifts key signs of neurodegenerative disease in general and ALS in particular--slowing the animals' neuron loss and extending life.

The work supports the hypothesis that artificially outnumbering unhealthy cells with healthy ones in targeted parts of the spinal cord preserves limb strength and breathing and can increase survival. An account of the work appears online in Nature Neuroscience.

Two parts of the study hold special interest. One is that the target area for the added cells--parts of the cervical spinal cord that control the diaphragm muscles largely responsible for breathing--reap the most benefit. Forty-seven percent more motor neurons survived there than in untreated model animals. Respiratory failure from diaphragm weakness is the usual cause of death in ALS.

"While the added cells, in the long run, did not save all of the nerves to the diaphragm, they did maintain [the] nerve's ability to function and stave off death significantly longer," says neuroscientist Nicholas Maragakis, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins who led the research team. …

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