Stem-cell research is both one of the most promising and one of the most controversial branches of science right now. Much of the debate stems (ahem) from the ethical debate about how to harvest the invaluable cells, which can differentiate into all the different types of cells found in the human body. Now LiveScience reports that scientists at Paris’ Pasteur Institute have discovered that stem cells can survive at least 17 days within a body after death. The upper limit may be even higher; the 17-day limit is merely because that’s how old the remains being tested were. Either way, this could be an important boon for ongoing stem-cell research.
Led by histologist and neuropathologist Fabrice Chrétien, the researchers wanted to learn whether stem cells could remain viable inside the body after death, and for how long. It was previously considered unlikely that stem cells would survive longer than two days, since they would be deprived of critical oxygen and nutrients. Surprisingly, however, tests on the 17-day-old remains, which had been stored at a brisk 39 degrees F, turned up living stem cells, specifically the type that create skeletal muscle. The cells were alive but “dormant,” a state which the scientists speculate allowed them to survive in the hostile environment of a dead body. According to LiveScience and Chrétien:
A better understanding of this dormancy could help lead to new ways to keep stem cells viable for longer periods for therapeutic purposes. They could also shed light on how cells in general respond to injuries and other traumas.
For the time being, these cadaver-harvested stem cells are not being targeted for use in therapies, but could be very useful for clinical tests, where there are fewer ethical implications. Who knows, though, as researchers learn more about how these cells can survive the death of the body, maybe in the future you’ll be able to donate your stem cells to help others after death, in much the same way we can donate our organs now.
Header image by Fabrice Chrétien