Stem cells study raises hopes of cure for muscle-wasting disease

Scientists are one step closer to finding a treatment for degenerative muscle diseases after stem cell experiments revealed an "exciting and unexpected result" for sufferers.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado found that transplanting specific types of stem cells into the leg muscles of mice prevented the loss of muscle function normally brought on by ageing.

This could have significant consequences for human sufferers of muscle-wasting illnesses, such as muscular dystrophy, who are sometimes left unable to walk because of the disease.

The American researchers injected young host mice affected by muscle injuries with muscle stem cells – which are responsible for the repair and maintenance of skeletal muscles – from young donor mice.

In addition to repairing the injury within days, the donor cells caused the treated muscle to double in mass and sustain itself throughout the lifetime of the mice.

Prof Bradley Olwin, of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado, said the findings were only the first step in discovering how the experiments might be applied to humans.

"This was a very exciting and unexpected result," he said. "With further research we may one day be able to greatly resist the loss of muscle mass, size and strength in humans that accompanies ageing, as well as chronic degenerative diseases like muscular dystrophy.

"In this study, the hallmarks we see with the ageing of muscles just weren't occurring. The transplanted material seemed to kick the stem cells to a high gear for self-renewal, essentially taking over the production of muscle cells."

Prof Olwin's team will soon start experiments to see if transplanting muscle stem cells from humans or large animals into mice will have the same effect.