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Human embryonic stem cells perform well in multiple sclerosis mouse study

9 June 2014
Appeared in BioNews 757

Human embryonic stem cells have been shown to be more effective in treating multiple sclerosis (MS) in mice than bone marrow stem cells, a study reports.

Researchers looked at a more specialised type of stem cell known as a mesenchymal stem cell (MSC), which has the potential to grown into bone, muscle and nerve cells, grown from a human embryo. They found that they were able to treat the symptoms of MS in mice, meaning the mice were better able to move around than if they had been treated with MSCs taken from bone marrow.

'These great advantages [over bone marrow cells] perfectly match the requirements for safety and quality control of clinical-grade MSCs as a potential therapy for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis', said study author Dr Ren-He Xu, from ImStem Biotechnology.

MS is a condition affecting the brain and nervous system and affects more than two million people worldwide. It is caused when immune cells attack the protective sheath of myelin around nerve cells, and few treatments currently exist, so the need for effective therapies is urgent. Bone marrow derived MSCs are already being successfully used against MS in clinical trials, but embryonic stem cell derived MSCs could offer a more powerful therapy.

'The cells not only reduced the clinical symptoms of multiple sclerosis but prevented demyelination, which disrupts the ability of the nervous system to communicate', said Dr Robert Lanza, senior author, from Advanced Cell Technologies.

The study, published in Stem Cell Reports, identifies a potential molecular cause for the difference in performance. The MSCs from bone marrow were found to increase the expression of the gene IL-6, a key player in the regulation of inflammation. Increased IL-6 expression is associated with progressive patient deterioration. Lower IL-6 expression may allow the embryonic stem cell derived MSCs to migrate more easily into inflamed nervous system tissues, and aid their therapeutic effects.

Despite the embryonic stem cell derived MSCs being more effective, there is a long way to go before they can replace bone marrow derived cells in human trials. This study only involved a small number of mice used, so more research is needed to confirm these results before clinical trials are considered.

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