Oct 19, 2017 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

New and Improved Stem Cells Have the Potential to Restore Sight and Heal Damaged Brains

May 16, 2015 02:01 PM EDT

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An exciting breakthrough in stem cell research was just announced by the University of Toronto. Using a gel-like biomaterial, scientists were able to prolong the lives of stem cells, improve their integration in living tissues, improve motor coordination following stroke, and even restore partial vision to the blind.  

The report appeared in the newest issue of the journal Stem Cell Reports, and was conducted by researchers from U of T's Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. The team was led by University of Toronto professors Molly Shoichet and Derek van der Kooy, and assisted by Professor Cindi Morshead.

The researchers applied a newly engineered 'hydrogel' to stem cells that were transplanted into the eyes and brains of mice suffering from blindness and stroke, respectively. And their results show promise for the development of new therapies to repair nerve damage caused by injury or disease.

Stem cells have the unique ability to turn into any cell type in the body. Therefore, they show tremendous promise for generating replacement tissues and organs. Scientists have successfully grown stem cells in their labs, but once the cells are transplanted into the body, they often fail to integrate into the living tissues and many cells end up dying.

The team hopes to change that with the use of hydrogels, which hold the cells together during the transplantation procedure.

"This study goes one step further, showing that the hydrogels do more than just hold stem cells together, they directly promote stem cell survival and integration," says Shoichet. "This brings stem cell-based therapy closer to reality."

Part of their study was gauging whether the treated cells could help restore function to damaged or diseased tissues. They injected hydrogel-encapsulated photoreceptors, produced by stem cells in the lab, into the eyes of blind mice and were able to restore partial vision in the rodents.

"After cell transplantation, our measurements showed that mice with previously no visual function regained approximately 15% of their pupillary response," expert in stem cell biology who led part of the study, Dr. Brian Ballios says. "Their eyes are beginning to detect light and respond appropriately."

The hydrogel-treated stem cells were also injected into the brains of mice who had recently suffered strokes. Michael Cooke, a postdoc fellow, is excited by their results.

"After transplantation, within weeks we started seeing improvements in the mice's motor coordination," says Cooke. They plan to continue their experiments on larger animals better suited for behavioral tests, such as rats, in order to determine the outcome of potential stroke patients treated with stem cells.

Since the treatment has shown promise within the eyes and brain, scientists hope it could be used on many different sites within the body. Further research will tell.

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