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UCSF Team Advances Probe of Neural Stem Cell-Brain Tumor Link

By Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Services | September 1, 2005

The public's enthusiasm for stem cell research has focused on the potential of the cells to treat disease and traumatic injury. But UCSF researchers are working on another angle of stem cell research -- one focused on illuminating disease.

Theoretically, if scientists could deduce how to prompt embryonic or adult stem cells to evolve into the various specialized cells of the body, the cells could be transplanted into patients, replacing, for example, the key brain cells destroyed in Parkinson's disease.

But below the public radar screen is another element of stem cell research -- one focused on illuminating disease. Scientists are studying the earliest stages of embryonic and adult stem cell growth in the culture dish and in animal models with the ultimate goal of identifying the genetic missteps that cause such diseases as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and that account for some cases of birth defects and infertility. Scientists also are conducting studies on adult stem cells to determine whether disregulated stem cells cause some cancers.

In the Aug. 25 issue of New England Journal of Medicine, a team of UCSF stem cell scientists and neurosurgeons reports on the increasing evidence from labs around the world that stem cells found in the brain -- known as neural stem cells -- may be the cause of the most common form of primary brain tumor. These tumors are called malignant gliomas.

Last year, the same team reported the discovery of a ribbon of neural stem cells in the human brain (Nature, Feb. 19, 2004), offering hope that the cells could someday be used to develop strategies for regenerating damaged brain tissue. But at the time, the team, including co-author Mitchel Berger, MD, professor and chairman of the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery and director of the UCSF Brain Tumor Research Center, also noted that data suggested disregulated forms of these cells could play a role in several disease processes. These include malignant gliomas, the demyelination (or destruction of the protective coating on nerve fibers) associated with multiple sclerosis, and neurodegeneration.

Body of Evidence

In the current review article, the team examined a body of evidence that they say signals a watershed moment in the convergence of neural stem cell research and brain tumor research.

"At this point, no one can say gliomas arise from neural stem cells. But as we learn more about neural stem cells -- where they are located in the brain and how to manipulate them in the experimental setting -- we are gaining evidence suggesting a connection between the two," says lead author Nader Sanai, MD, a resident neurosurgeon at UCSF Medical Center and a neural stem cell researcher in the laboratory of Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, professor of neurosurgery.

"This paper shows that a significant number of scientists has begun focusing on the possibility. This is why we're so excited," he says.

Read more at Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Services