Skin - the key to medical cures?

Stem cell research. Pic: Massimo Brega, The Lighthouse/SPL
Image caption The potential of skin stem cells 'is enormous'

Skin is the body's largest organ.

It already can be harvested to provide extra skin for burns victims and to grow cells that form cartilage and muscle.

But as scientists delve deeper into its layers, it is becoming clear that the skin might in the future hold the key to curing a range of conditions, from cancer to spinal cord repair.

And there are great hopes for skin stem cells.

This week a team at Oxford University announced that specially manipulated skin cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, can be used to generate the brain nerve cells that die in Parkinson's.

New uses

Sheila MacNeil, professor of tissue engineering at Sheffield University, said stem cell research is advancing so rapidly that it will soon be used in more applications.

"There is the potential to take a biopsy of skin from a patient with disease, culture the cells, alter them to make them grow into tissues you are interested in and also use them to study the basis of the genetic disease and then to design therapies that you can put back into the patient.

"We could be there in five years time for diseases which are well understood - like Parkinson's, and for other diseases where they are less well understood, 10 years."

She said that the 'clever thing' with the adult stem cells is that they are less likely to be rejected as they are from the donor's own body, unlike stem cells from embryos.

Although they can be harvested from across the body, the skin stem cells are easily accessible.

Professor Fiona Watt, from Cambridge University, pointed out that grafts formed by stem cells are already used to treat severe burns in patients.

"Some people forget that it is a stem cell treatment that works and which has been around a long time," she said.

"We are very interested in developing regenerative medicine as a way to heal our bodies when they can't heal themselves - when the damage from an injury or disease is too severe."

She added: "The skin contains a number of different types of stem cells - it is a very interesting and accessible source of cells to restore tissue.

"People have woken up to the idea that the skin has cells that can be turned into nerve cells and this could be a way to expand nerve cells to treat spinal cord injuries."

Professor Watt's work shows how single stem cells can be encouraged to grow in the lab on finely-patterned surfaces in order to identify the biological messages that control their ability to divide and mature into any type of cell.

Using this approach, Professor Watt's team at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, University of Cambridge, are uncovering the biology of adult skin stem cells. The methodology can also be applied to a wide range of embryonic and adult stem cells.

"I believe that the full therapeutic potential of skin stem cells is only just being appreciated," she said.

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