Cut skin heals. Broken bones mend. Nervous tissue however repairs itself very slowly or not at all. This is especially true in older patients. Moreover, diseases such as cancer of the brain are extremely difficult to treat because they are behind the blood-brain barrier. Most drugs can’t get past this extra layer of protection.
The best available therapies are incapable of effectively treating damage to the nervous system. Too often, trauma to the CNS causes permanent loss of function. Diseases of the nervous system are also particularly difficult to treat. One of these is ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a terminal progressive degeneration of central system neurons. Typically by the time of diagnosis, the disease is already advanced and patients have only years to live.
In the United States alone, there are 6,000 to 7,000 new diagnoses per year. The total U.S. population of ALS patients remains relatively stable, at only 30,000 or so ALS sufferers. This is because few ALS patients survive long beyond diagnosis. As the disease destroys the neurons of the central nervous system, muscle paralysis increases until the patient can no longer breathe or swallow; and asphyxiation results.
If nervous system tissue could be regrown, however, we could treat spinal cord injuries and neurological diseases like ALS. We could grow healthy neurons at damaged sites and restore functions. All of this is becoming possible due to breakthroughs in the therapeutic use of stem cells (SCs).
Recently Sanjay Gupta, on CNN’s AC360, covered pioneering work being performed to develop the first reliable mass-reproduced source of stem cells for use in neurological therapies and drug discovery. This breakthrough in stem cell production makes them the key source for future stem cell-based CNS therapies.
After careful investigation, these accomplishments can be likened to industrial manufacturing breakthroughs of the 1800s. Before then, manufactured products were each individually unique.
If you bought a clock or a musket, there were no others like it in the world. If a part broke, a new part would have to be made from scratch. Component interchangeability did not exist. Neither did scalable mass production. An artisan would make the product and all its parts, from beginning to end. In other words, stuff was expensive. Improvements in manufacturing precision as well as new, scalable mass manufacturing methods changed that forever.
Back in the 1990s, exciting discoveries in neural stem cell science were being made in academia. It was obvious that during fetal development, primitive stem cells proliferated and differentiated into all the different human tissues, including the brain and nervous system. However, one of the unsolved mysteries was the trigger. What caused these cells to “decide” what they were supposed to become? There were several camps in the field, each with a different theory.
At the time, nearly everyone thought there was a “magic molecule”; some undiscovered chemical that induced the differentiation of the SCs into their final mature states. Some SC startups believed they were close when they developed an early neural SC culture technology. With this technology, however, there was no way to control the exact type of cell produced.
Each SC batch was potentially valuable, but unique, like a handmade part. Scientists couldn’t know what kinds of neurons they would have at the end of the day. There are, in fact, hundreds of different types of CNS tissue.
If SCs were going to be used for mainstream medical uses, this was a problem. What was needed was the ability to reliably “fit” the “part” to the tissue needing repair. The breakthrough that made this possible actually occurred when a researcher at the National Institutes of Health discovered how to nudge neural stem cells to become exactly the tissue he wanted them to be, and in huge volumes. What he discovered was the “constitutive” factor. As importantly, he was able to patent and commercialize the technology.
His approach is based on the fact that stem cells are always in one of two states. They are either proliferating or differentiating. If the stem cells are proliferating, they won’t be differentiating. Conversely, if they are differentiating, they will no longer be proliferating. The key to getting a large volume of ready-to-go neural stem cells was to procure stem cells at the right amount of differentiation (more on this in a bit) and control that proliferation process.
To do this, cells in culture are bathed in a “secret sauce” of molecules that tells the cells to undergo mitosis; meaning they are to divide. This mitogen, called basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), signals the cells to keep on splitting. Once the pioneering company decides to make them differentiate, they remove the mitogen. All the cells in the culture then spontaneously differentiate into the desired cell type in a consistent, reproducible fashion. This allows manufacturing precision and large-scale mass production, a revolution in neural stem cell fabrication.
To use the manufacturing process successfully, the stem cells must be acquired at just the right time in the differentiation process. If it is too early, they will be too undifferentiated and you won’t be sure what the final cells will be. Precision over the cell types is lost. If they are too differentiated, however, you don’t get the kind of mitotic capacity needed to produce the cells in a volume that can be used to commercially treat many patients. Scalable mass productivity is lost.
These pioneering companies have identified the optimal point in fetal development at which the stem cells retain both vast mitotic capacity along with sufficient differentiation.
The stem cells that are produced are capable of 60 doublings. To give an idea of the scale this represents, a single cell at this stage is capable of producing more than a quintillion cells. This a 1 followed by 18 zeros. This is a billion-billionfold expansion from the root cells.
Now in the spirit of full disclosure and some potentially sensitive issues, these companies are using root cell lines that are adult stem cells. They do not come from embryos and cannot develop into fetuses. They are however procured from human post-mortem fetuses in the early months of the gestational process. Fetal tissues are employed in a number of other medical technologies used by virtually everybody including vaccines. You should know so you can decide if this violates your values.
Several of the companies undertaking this pioneering work, have spent years laying a foundation that is now ready to burst onto market. They have collect over 600 different cells lines from different regions of the CNS. They have produced cell banks capable of generating millions of therapeutic doses under conditions already approved by the FDA for human trial. The majority of these lines have not been fully explored. However, of those that have been, they have selected the most promising lines for the treatment of ALS, acute and chronic spinal cord injury, stroke damage, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and Huntington’s disease.
Just as neural stem cell fabrication is ready to burst on the market, so too are advances in being able to control our aging process.
As mentioned in a previous post on this blog, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent at CNN, has reported that “Practical Immortality may now be within our grasp.”
So now the question becomes, “how do we slow the rate of aging and avoid the frailty that would make longevity less desirable?”
With antioxidant supplements, we can slow our rate of aging; with a nutrition and fitness routine, we can avoid frailty and improve our health; and with an industry leading business opportunity, we can make great money and generate financial wealth.
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Happy Reading and Here's to Your Success! Mike Farrell, founder, owner, and operator of aspenIbiz, my portfolio of Internet Marketing companies.
Finally, I want to thank Patrick Cox of Agora Financial as he was the source of some of the materials about the technology advancements mentioned in this post.
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