Stem Cell Models for Environmental Health

Posted on

June 3-4, 2010

Keck Center, Room 100

500 5th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20001

Learn more about stem cells with the Understanding Stem Cells booklet.

Stem cells have received much attention due to their potential therapeutic applications. However, their anticipated value as research tools may be even greater. Why? Stem cells have the special property of being able to differentiate into different cell types. This property enables them to be used to model aspects of human biology that have been largely inaccessible to study by other means. A few examples include prenatal developmental processes, cell types that are difficult to maintain in the laboratory, and gene-environment interactions.

How can human stem cells become important tools for making environmental health decisions? Stem cell technologies are rapidly evolving. Several emerging or postulated uses relevant to environmental health include:

Modeling developmental processes. Under the right conditions, stem cells can recapitulate the normal developmental processes that occur before birth. Therefore, these models can be used to study the effects of many factors, including environmental chemicals, on the pathways that generate mature cells.

Studying many types of cells in vitro. Stem cell models can be used to study the effects of environmental chemicals in a cell, tissue, or organ systems. The human body is made up of over 200 cell types, many of which are difficult or impossible to grow in the laboratory. Stem cells can differentiate into some of the more elusive cell types or be engineered to form more complex structures such as tissues and organs that are composed of multiple cell types.

Elucidating genetic and environmental contributions to disease. Scientists are using stem cells from individuals with a wide array of diseases to study interactions among genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors. This approach is amenable to illnesses or disease in which the genetic contribution is known (e.g., cystic fibrosis) and other disorders with complex or unknown causes (e.g., cancer and autism).

This event fostered a synergetic exploration of ways in which these powerful cell-based tools can be used to better understand the effects of environmental chemicals and other xenobiotics on human health. Toxicologists and environmental health regulators learned about the most powerful stem cell models, with particular emphasis on human systems, that could be used to make environmental health decisions. Stem cell biologists learned more about the critical questions plaguing environmental health scientists, to which these novel cell-based tools may be applied.