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New Type of Stem Cell Developed

A new type of stem cell was created by researchers at UT Southwestern at the end of last year, and it could have a big impact on infertility treatment.

March 24, 2021
Charlotte Pearse

New research to investigate infertility is being done every day, as so many couples in the world struggle to get pregnant.

Stem cells have emerged as a promising treatment method in recent years, though of course there’s no magic, guaranteed fix to infertility.

However, a new type of pluripotent stem cell that has been developed by researchers at UT Southwestern may be a big step for the future of stem cell therapy and its benefits for infertility treatment.

Scientists are incredibly optimistic about these XSCs, and what they could mean for further study and development.

Background

So, what’s a stem cell, and why is it important? Well, stem cells are very resilient cells in the human bodies that can renew and replicate themselves. They can produce other, more specialized cells as well.

All people have them throughout their entire lives, and stem cells have recently been found to be a possible remedy for infertility. 8-12% of couples deal with serious problems conceiving, and there are so many factors that go into making sure a pregnancy goes right.

An image of a couple facing away from the camera, sitting outside and leaning on each other for comfort.
8-12% may seem like a large number, but nearly everyone knows at least one couple that has struggled with fertility. There’s no magic fix, and it can be an incredibly difficult thing to deal with. Luckily, scientists are always trying to find new ways to treat it, and stem cells could be the future.

Stem cell therapy is starting to be more widely accepted as a treatment for infertility, though. The cells are used to regenerate damaged tissue, and if that tissue happens to be the cause of infertility, then these cells could really help. 

Ovarian regeneration is the main benefit of stem cells for female infertility, and for males their stem cells can be saved in vitro.

Until now, there were only four main types of stem cells that pertained to infertility. There are several types of pluripotent stem cells, meaning they can create many different other types of cells— ESCs, SSCs, and iPSCs —Embryonic, Spermatogonial, and Induced-Pluripotent stem cells, respectively. 

Multipotent stem cells have the capacity to divide into copies of themselves instead, and are simply known as MSCs. However, a new pluripotent stem cell has recently been developed, and it could bring something wonderful to the microscope table.

Research

A research team at UT Southwestern, has developed a new type of stem cell, one that is a balance between embryonic stem cells, present in mice four days after fertilization, and epiblast stem cells, present seven days after fertilization.

Until now, scientists have not been able to maintain these pluripotent stem cells in a state between these two stages. They believed these cells would have the ability to create interspecies chimeras, organisms that have cells from multiple different species, and be an antecedent for sperm and egg cells.

A close-up, zoomed in image of an embryo cell, which appears to be several circles intersecting.
This embryo may not look like much, but it carries all the necessary building blocks of life. Many stem cells do, as well, as they are often developed from embryo cells, as the ones in this study were.

Finally, they have developed an intermediate stem cell, dubbed XSCs. They were successfully created by UT Southwestern, a very prominent academic medical center, from mice, horses, and humans.

The team was led by Jun Wu, PhD, an assistant professor of molecular biology. Other researchers who contributed to the study were Leqian Yu, Yulei Wei, Carlos A. Pinzon Arteaga, Masahiro Sakurai, Daniel A. Schmitz, Canbin Zheng, and Emily D. Ballard.

These new stem cells were very difficult to keep in a stable state, since the conditions they required were opposite those of most pluripotent stem cells. The XSCs needed a suppressed WNT pathway as well as activated FGF and TGF-ß pathways. For other PSCs, the reverse is true.

However, researchers grew XSCs from early mouse embryos. The cells were placed in chemicals to stimulate growth and activate all three pathways. The resulting, lab-made cells were incredibly stable and were able to multiply without further development for nearly two years.

More research on the XSCs was done by Wu’s team, and it has revealed that these new stem cells meet their expectations of chimera creation. Development of organs in mice embryos benefitted both from the XSCs of other species of mice and horses.

Impact

So, what does this newly developed stem cell mean for the future? What does it mean for infertility?

No doubt, additional study into the creation of interspecies chimeras will be done in the future to see how far stem cells of one species can go to contribute to the development of another. In addition to that, scientists hope they will be able to use these stem cells to study what traits have been preserved through evolution.

However, if they’re able to use these stem cells to accelerate development of tissues, they could use these types of cells in organ transplantations.

They could use stem cells from these interspecies chimeras to create sperm and egg cells, which could in turn be used either for endangered animal species as well as treatment for human infertility.

A zoomed-in image of the egg cell being injected with the sperm for the IVF process. The cell is ovular in shape, and the syringe is poking into it.
IVF, or in vitro fertilization, is a process by which the egg is combined with the sperm and fertilized outside the body. Sperm and egg cells created from stem cells seem to be very promising for the future of making this process more successful.

After all, stem cell therapy has long been used to try and make sperm and egg cells more resilient, and these resilient versions of stem cells could be just what researchers have been looking for all this time. They could be the final puzzle piece needed.

Only more research will tell, but scientists are very optimistic about the future of XSCs. These new stem cells may be small, but researchers believe they will have a big impact on future studies.

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