A First: Brain Support Cells from Umbilical Cord Stem Cells



Human embryonic stem cells
A: Cell colonies that are not yet differentiated.
B: Nerve cell



ORLANDO, February 06, 2012 — For the first time ever, stem cells from umbilical cords have been converted into other types of cells, which may eventually lead to new treatment options for spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, among other nervous system diseases.

“This is the first time this has been done with non-embryonic stem cells,” says James Hickman, a University of Central Florida bioengineer and leader of the research group, whose accomplishment is described in the Jan. 18 issue of the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/cn200082q?prevSearch=Hickman&searchHistoryKey=



Pluripotent, embryonic stem cells originate as inner cell mass (ICM) cells within a blastocyst. These stem cells can become any tissue in the body, excluding a placenta. Only cells from an earlier stage of the embryo, known as the morula, are totipotent, able to become all tissues in the body and the extraembryonic placenta



“We’re very excited about where this could lead because it overcomes many of the obstacles present with embryonic stem cells.”

Stem cells from umbilical cords do not pose an ethical dilemma because the cells come from a source that would otherwise be discarded. Another major benefit is that umbilical cells generally have not been found to cause immune reactions, which would simplify their potential use in medical treatments.

The pharmaceutical company Geron, based in Menlo Park, Calif., developed a treatment for spinal cord repair based on embryonic stem cells, but it took the company 18 months to get approval from the FDA for human trials due in large part to the ethical and public concerns tied to human embryonic stem cell research. This and other problems recently led to the company shutting down its embryonic stem cell division, highlighting the need for other alternatives.

Sensitive Cells                 

The main challenge in working with stem cells is figuring out the chemical or other triggers that will convince them to convert into a desired cell type. When the new paper’s lead author, Hedvika Davis, a postdoctoral researcher in Hickman’s lab, set out to transform umbilical stem cells into oligodendrocytes–critical structural cells that insulate nerves in the brain and spinal cord–she looked for clues from past research.

Davis learned that other research groups had found components on oligodendrocytes that bind with the hormone norephinephrine, suggesting the cells normally interact with this chemical and that it might be one of the factors that stimulates their production. So, she decided this would be a good starting point.

In early tests, she found that norepinephrine, along with other stem cell growth promoters, caused the umbilical stem cells to convert, or differentiate, into oligodendrocytes. However, that conversion only went so far. The cells grew but then stopped short of reaching a level similar to what’s found in the human nervous system.

Davis decided that, in addition to chemistry, the physical environment might be critical.

To more closely approximate the physical restrictions cells face in the body, Davis set up a more confined, three-dimensional environment, growing cells on top of a microscope slide, but with a glass slide above them. Only after making this change, and while still providing the norephinphrine and other chemicals, would the cells fully mature into oligodendrocytes.

“We realized that the stem cells are very sensitive to environmental conditions,” Davis said.

Medical Potential

This growth of oligodendrocytes, while crucial, is only a first step to potential medical treatments. There are two main options the group hopes to pursue through further research. The first is that the cells could be injected into the body at the point of a spinal cord injury to promote repair.

Another intriguing possibility for the Hickman team’s work relates to multiple sclerosis and similar conditions. “Multiple sclerosis is one of the holy grails for this kind of research,” said Hickman, whose group is collaborating with Stephen Lambert at UCF’s medical school, another of the paper’s authors, to explore biomedical possibilities.

Oligodendrocytes produce myelin, which insulates nerve cells, making it possible for them to conduct the electrical signals that guide movement and other functions. Loss of myelin leads to multiple sclerosis and other related conditions such as diabetic neuropathy.

The injection of new, healthy oligodendrocytes might improve the condition of patients suffering from such diseases. The teams are also hoping to develop the techniques needed to grow oligodendrocytes in the lab to use as a model system both for better understanding the loss and restoration of myelin and for testing potential new treatments.

“We want to do both,” Hickman said. “We want to use a model system to understand what’s going on and also to look for possible therapies to repair some of the damage, and we think there is great potential in both directions.”



Diseases and conditions where stem cell treatment is promising or emerging.Bone marrow transplantation is, as of 2009, the only established use of stem cells.




Besides Hickman and Davis, the other authors on the paper were Xiufang Guo, Stephen Lambert, and Maria Stancescu, all from the University of Central Florida.

UCF Stands For Opportunity –The University of Central Florida is a metropolitan research university that ranks as the second largest in the nation with more than 58,000 students. UCF’s first classes were offered in 1968. The university offers impressive academic and research environments that power the region’s economic development. UCF’s culture of opportunity is driven by our diversity, Orlando environment, history of entrepreneurship and our youth, relevance and energy. For more information visit http://news.ucf.edu

Contact: Barbara Abney
University of Central Florida




Public News Release
Grapes May Help Prevent Age-Related Blindness


Study shows grapes provided more antioxidant protection for eyes than lutein


February  6, 2012, FRESNO, Calif. – Can eating grapes slow or help prevent the onset of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a debilitating condition affecting millions of elderly people worldwide? Results from a new study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine suggest this might be the case. The antioxidant actions of grapes are believed to be responsible for these protective effects.

The study compared the impact of an antioxidant-rich diet on vision using mice prone to developing retinal damage in old age in much the same way as humans do. Mice either received a grape-enriched diet, a diet with added lutein, or a normal diet.

The result? Grapes proved to offer dramatic protection: the grape-enriched diet protected against oxidative damage of the retina and prevented blindness in those mice consuming grapes. While lutein was also effective, grapes were found to offer significantly more protection.

“The protective effect of the grapes in this study was remarkable, offering a benefit for vision at old age even if grapes were consumed only at young age,” said principal investigator Silvia Finnemann, PhD, Department of Biological Sciences, Fordham University in New York.

Dr. Finnemann noted that results from her study suggest that age-related vision loss is a result of cumulative, oxidative damage over time. “A lifelong diet enriched in natural antioxidants, such as those in grapes, appears to be directly beneficial for RPE and retinal health and function.”

Age-related macular degeneration is a progressive eye condition, leading to the deterioration of the center of the retina, called the macula. It is the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. Aging of the retina is associated with increased levels of oxidative damage, and oxidative stress is thought to play a pivotal role in the development of AMD.

In AMD, there is a known decline in the function of retinal pigment epithelium cells (RPE), which are the support cells for the photoreceptors in the retina that are critical to the process of converting light into sight. The RPE dysfunction is caused by 1) a build-up of metabolic waste products (known as lipofuscin) in the RPE itself and 2) an oxidation burden on the RPE that compromise important metabolic pathways. The resulting dysfunction, distress and often death of the RPE cells leads to AMD.

This study showed that adding grapes to the diet prevented blindness in mice by significantly decreasing the build-up of lipofuscin and preventing the oxidative damage to the RPE, thus ensuring optimal functioning of this critical part of the retina.

“Preserving eye health is a key concern as we age and this study shows that grapes may play a critical role in achieving this,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. “This is good news for consumers of all ages who enjoy grapes, and adds to the growing body of evidence that grapes offer an array of health benefits.”


The California Table Grape Commission was created by the California legislature in 1967 to increase worldwide demand for fresh California grapes through a variety of research and promotional programs.

The California Table Grape Commission prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, or religion. The California Table Grape Commission is an equal opportunity provider and employer.


Public News Release

Contact: Karen Brux
California Table Grape Commission