CAMPBELL NORTH ’17
Some of the most prominent diseases that older people have to fight – heart disease, diabetes, age-related degenerative diseases and other disorders – may meet their match in the coming decade with the development of stem cell therapies. And when it comes time to enter the ring, research shows you may want to place your bets on female stem cells to pack the stronger punch.
“We always knew women were awesome,” said Doris Taylor, director of Regenerative Medicine Research at the Texas Heart Institute. “Now we have the science to back it up.”
In 2007 the first discovery on the strength of female stem cells was revealed. Female stem cells, derived from animal muscle tissue, generated more muscle fiber and survived better when repairing injured muscle than male cells.
A study conducted by Dr. Taylor and her team, published last year in the Texas Heat Institute Journal, broadened research to humans ages 20 to 70, harvesting stem cells from the blood and bone marrow. The same is true in people; female stem cells were “stronger” than their male counterparts.
Female stem cell strength refers to their number and the fact that “they are more potent than cells derived from males the same age,” said Dr. Taylor. “At a given age women will have more stem cells present, in the blood at least, and as we age, women retain more potent stem cells for a longer period of time.”
The team’s current theory points to the need for reduced blood levels of inflammation during pregnancy as one reason why female stem cells may have an advantage.
The quality and quantity of female stem cells may bring a new dimension of efficacy to stem cell therapies to treat disease. “The data on stem cells is very hopeful,” said Paula Johnson, director of the Mary Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “This may help us understand sex differences on a cellular level.”
Stem cell therapies use stem cells’ inherent ability to differentiate into other specialized cells, such as skin, bone or muscle. They can be used to treat a wide variety of disorders because they are “capable of moving through all developmental stages to become functional tissue,” said Justin Brown, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State.
However, their ability to repair damaged organs eventually diminishes because they “are limited in the number of times they can divide and the rate at which they divide slows as we age,” he said.
This inhibits stem cells’ natural ability to replace or rejuvenate specialized cells damaged by the wear and tear on internal organs. The basic premises of stem cell therapies is to counteract this by harvesting stem cells from bone marrow, fat or heart muscle and then injecting them at the sight of injury to repair and replace damaged cells.
“And if endogenous stem cell repair works a lot better in women, why not figure out what that is and make it available for male colleagues,” said Dr. Taylor. “In theory, if someone had a heart attack and we wanted to do cell therapy, we would want to give them the most potent cells available. We could give them female stem cells or figure out what is in the cells that makes them better.”
As the field of medicine continues to advance, the possiblities for stem cell therapy are endless. Moving forward, information about the differences and vitalities between stem cells becomes imperative for creating the most efficacious treatments. So while the traditional presumption may assume males are inherently stronger, females take the cake in hardness and brawn at the cellular level.