How do stem cells work? There are lots of things we know and perhaps one of the most interesting is that they offer a recharge to cells with dying batteries. Let’s review a new study that confirms in living animals what others have also shown in the lab.
The Basics of Cells and Cell Structure
At the most basic level, it’s important to understand that the human body is made up of interconnected body systems that function as one unified biological machine. Those body systems are made up of organs and other structures, which can be broken down further into tissues. And our tissues are made up of many different types of cells. From here, if zoom in close on our cells, they are made up of a variety of organelles (e.g., ribosomes, nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria, etc.), each with its own independent and collaborative functions.
Mitochondria and the Stem Cells That Can Repair Them
I referred to cell “batteries” in the title of this post. These batteries are the mitochondria. They are the power source inside each cell that, when healthy and fully charged, keep the cell functioning at peak performance. The fuel source for the mitochondria is the nutrients we consume in our food, which is then converted by the mitochondria into chemical energy for the cell. As with any battery, our cell batteries (our mitochondria) can lose power and die, and this often occurs as a result of damage to the cell or aging.
The body works in extraordinary ways, and it already has an inherent mechanism for helping to repair cells that have dying batteries. Mesenchymal stem cells, studies have shown, can transfer their healthy mitochondrial batteries to damaged cells. Our local stem cells are designed to track down those cells with damaged mitochondria. Once found, the stem cell will latch onto the damaged cell and then transfer its healthy, fully charged mitochondria into the unhealthy cell. In other words, the mitochondria in the damaged cell are replaced by the mitochondria in the healthy stem cell, in essence repowering the dying cell. Watch my brief video below for a visual of this transfer.
A new study investigated the ability to use mitochondria transfer from mesenchymal stem cells specifically to repair endothelial cell damage that occurs due to a stroke. Let’s review what researchers found.
Transplanted Stem Cells Repair Stroke-Damaged Vessel Cells via Mitochondria Transfer
The new study set out to determine if stem cells transplanted into the affected cerebral vessels of rats would transfer their mitochondria into damaged endothelial cells (those cells that line the vessels) after a stroke. In prior studies, this is something that had only been accomplished in a lab setting.
The result? The transplanted stem cells did indeed transfer their healthy mitochondria into the damaged endothelial cells. How did the endothelial cells respond? The “battery” power of the cells in the stroke-damaged area improved significantly. This resulted in the enhanced formation of blood vessels, critical for healing, reduced volume of the cerebral infarction, and improvement of function.
What does this mean? We now have evidence from a living animal model of treatment that shows that what we knew was happening in the lab happens in the real world. This opens up a whole new area of thought in stem cell and regenerative medicine. Take for example an arthritic knee, where a patient may beleive that the most critical thing is to regrow new cartilage, but in reality, it may actually be that transferring new mitochondria into existing dying cartilage and joint maintenance cells is more important. This could explain why patients with severe arthritis often get great clinical results with stem cell treatment despite the procedure not generating new cartilage.
The upshot? The mitochondrial recharge is just one of the many fascinating ways stem cells likely work in our bodies. In fact, this could create a whole new breed of stem cell therapies with optimized abilities to help dying cells through mitochondrial transfer!