Stem Cells from Down Under

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTwo weeks ago, on November 15th, researchers reported in the Journal of Translational Medicine (see citation below) that they had successfully isolated and characterized stem cells from menstrual blood. The researchers, Meng et al., were able to differentiate these cells--called Endometrial Regenerative Cells (ERCs)--into nine distinct cell types, and the stem cells displayed other encouraging characteristics (including rapid proliferation, unique expression of an embryonic stem cell marker, and particularly high production of certain growth factors and matrix metalloproteinases). These findings were so promising, in fact, that the company who sponsored this research, Medistem, is already working on commercializing this work:

According to Neil Riordan, PhD, President and CEO of Medistem "The ability to take a cell and differentiate it into the tissue type needed by the body creates a world of opportunity in the world of organ and tissue regeneration. With IP filed around the cell line, we have begun taking the next steps in the commercialization process. Currently, our collaborators at Western Ontario, Alberta, and the Bio-Communications Research Institute are doing a series of pre-clinical studies to establish efficacy data in a variety of indications. The indications currently being assessed include diabetes, liver cirrhosis, lung fibrosis, organ rejection, and multiple sclerosis. Should the data gathered prove strong in one or all the indications the next step will be to file INDs with the FDA and move into clinical trials."

Complicating the picture somewhat is the fact that a different company, Cryo-Cell, started making headlines two weeks previously, on November 1st, when it unveiled its own new menstrual blood stem cell harvesting and storage service, C'elle (see Pharyngula, Pimm - Partial Immortalization, Wired, BBC, New Scientist). With C'elle, Cryo-Cell seemed to have jumped the gun a bit, since menstrual blood stem cells had not yet been reported in the scientific literature. Although the C'elle offered a reasonable amount of detail on its site about the characterization of the stem cells isolated using its procedure, nothing had been published yet. Instead, this is what Cryo-Cell had to say on the C'elle site:

Recent research performed specifically on C'elle menstrual stem cells by a world-renowned medical researcher, along with research findings from independent laboratories, has confirmed that C'elle menstrual stem cells replicate themselves on average every 24 hours and can differentiate into many other types of stem cells, including heart muscle, bone, cartilage, nerve, and adipose (fat) cells. At this time, C'elle menstrual stem cells are being evaluated in pre-clinical (non-human) studies related to potential cardiovascular, diabetes and neurodegenerative human regenerative therapies. We anticipate that these studies, along with many other possible research studies in the future, may enhance medical and scientific knowledge required for human translational stem cell therapies in the years ahead.

Presumably, the primary researchers involved in this work are the four scientists listed on the C'elle website: Amit N. Patel, Gerald Elfenbein, Stephen J. Noga, and Paul R. Sanberg. However, Medistem has beaten them to the punch by getting its own paper out first--a paper that appears pretty compelling. Meng et al. were able to isolate stem cells from the menstrual blood of two different donors, culture and characterize these cells, and differentiate them into cadiomyocytic, respiratory epithelial, neurocytic, myocytic, endothelial, pancreatic, hepatic, adipocytic, and osteogenic cells. The stem cells had a rapid doubling time of 19.4 hours and could be cultured stably for many passages. Interestingly, these cells expressed the embryonic stem cell marker Oct-4 (one of the proteins recently used to transform fibroblasts into embryonic stem cell-like iPS cells). On the other hand, although Cryo-Cell reported that its cells also express the embryonic stem cell marker SSEA-4, Meng et al. reported that their cells did not. Regardless, it looks like Meng et al. demonstrated pretty convincingly that they have isolated a novel type of stem cell, and they noted that it shouldn't be surprising that such a population of stem cells exists in menstrual blood, given the rapid expansion that the endometrium (the inner lining of the uterus) undergoes before it is shed during menstruation. Taking into account their pluripotency, ease of culture, and non-invasive manner of acquisition, menstrual blood stem cells look pretty promising for future clinical applications. However, the current study is strictly basic research. No clinical data has been published, putting any therapeutic applications in the distant future.

That hasn't stopped Cryo-Cell from putting up a flashy and overblown website (sickeningly so, in fact) and promoting their service heavily. One person told me "I got a glossy mailing with glamorous models in it for the C'elle service today and at first I was sure it was trying to sell cosmetic procedures." Regardless, ladies, they're eagerly awaiting your contributions:

Upon ordering, you'll receive an attractive, discrete C'elle collection kit by FedEx delivery. Inside, you'll find everything needed for you to collect and send your C'elle menstrual stem cells for processing and preservation, including a menstrual cup, collection tubes, prepaid FedEx airbill for return shipment to Cryo-Cell, and comprehensive instructions for use.

Before you get too excited, though, even at introductory rates the service starts at $499 (plus $99 per year for storage), and the price increases for additional samples. That's pretty ambitious--especially for a technology that has not yet been validated in any clinical studies.

I'll admit that I'm feeling a little less skeptical now that at least something peer-reviewed has been published on menstrual blood stem cells, but if you want my advice, I wouldn't be rushing to dish out thousands of dollars for this service just yet (although I suppose it's not really an option for me, anyway). Also, although Cryo-Cell is a well-established bank for umbilical cord blood stem cells, the St. Petersburg Times revealed in 2003 that a series of major freezer malfunctions could have compromised or ruined the stem cell samples from over 1,000 customers. So, I would be a little hesitant, to say the least.

Based on the recent paper and on other work with adult stem samples, menstrual blood stem cells look pretty promising (and the simple--although slightly awkward--method of collection and constantly renewed source are both big pluses). However, clinical applications in humans for the treatment of any condition using these cells are still a long way off. Regardless of how gung ho you are to order your "attractive, discrete" collection kit right way, I would recommend waiting (1) to see some clinical data (2) to see whether some competition from others will bring the price down (clearly, Medistem is planning on getting into the mix). Otherwise, you'll be paying hundreds of dollars up front and at least a hundred dollars per year to store cells that are effectively useless to you.

Besides, with a fresh crop coming up every month, I don't think that supplies will be running out anytime soon.

Meng, X., Ichim, T.E., Zhong, J., Rogers, A., Yin, Z., Jackson, J., Wang, H., Ge, W., Bogin, V., Chan, K.W., Thebaud, B., Riordan, N.H. (2007). Endometrial regenerative cells: A novel stem cell population. Journal of Translational Medicine, 5(1), 57. DOI: 10.1186/1479-5876-5-57


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By Meredith M. Clancy (not verified) on 29 Nov 2007 #permalink