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Secrets of life revealed by new technologies

Belarusian scientists using hair follicles as latest source of stem cells 
By Dmitry Sergeev

People once believed that the human soul resided in a person’s hair. They later abandoned this assumption but it turns out that they were close to the truth, since our hair roots or follicles contain stem cells, which can be used to ‘repair’ any organ of the body.

Unlike bone marrow, funicular or adipose tissue — powerful factories for stem cells — hair follicles are like tiny laboratories manufacturing ‘base’ cells. Volumes are small but, of course, harvesting them is far easier! Bone marrow puncture is known to be painful and extremely invasive.

The Institute of Genetics and Cytology, at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, has spent five years developing methods of collecting and replicating human stem cells from hair follicles, explains Nina Balashenko, a junior research officer at the Institute. “The approach enables us to cultivate cell cultures from a small amount of initial material, for use in regenerative medicine: healing trophic ulcers and other skin diseases and restoring skin after burns and injuries.” Naturally, the body has the best chance of accepting cells when they originate from its own direct source, rather than from relatives.

She continues, “We are now conducting a series of experiments to discover whether these cells are secure and whether they can be ‘specialised’ to suit particular needs. Caution is vital, since stem cells are like cancer cells in some respects, making them more likely to become malignant than ordinary cells. We need to be able to guarantee that this won’t happen.”

Leading research officer Oleg Kvitko adds, “In order to cultivate and differentiate cells, allowing them to be used for particular tissues, we need to use chemical agents: growth drivers and other additives. This is costly, so we’ve been seeking affordable alternatives and have found some interesting solutions.”

The results remain largely theoretical rather than applied but the next set of tests should prove the turning point. The ‘Tsitomir’ computer’s thermoregulatory box reveals the secrets of cells, with the help of a microscope and computer video system. Mr. Kvitko designed the prototype to monitor live cells, building it in the laboratory from improvised materials. An industrial prototype has since been created jointly with the Planar Optoelectronic Systems enterprise, involving colleagues from the Institute of Heat and Mass Transfer at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. Works were conducted as part of the Standards and Scientific Devices state sci-tech programme.

The Belarusian ‘Tsitomir’ is many times cheaper and more compact than its foreign rivals, while ensuring a higher quality of research, thanks to the original methods of cell cultivation developed by geneticists. At the time of my visit, it was researching a cell culture in automatic mode; of course, the picture looked static but playback of the video showed the cells dividing, growing, dying, moving and responding to influence and change.

The technology is allowing Belarusian geneticists to construct a genealogical tree of cells — unique globally — following their life over long periods of time, generation after generation.
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