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March 21, 2010

Another Step In Stem Cell Research

Scientists have found a way of creating adaptable stem cells from adult tissue. If practical, the method may end the stem cell controversy.

Scientists at Stanford University have devised a new method to create relatively adaptable stem cells from adult tissue. If it proves practical, this would go a long way towards ending all controversy over stem cell research.

Stem cells may some day allow doctors to repair damaged tissue that will not re−grow, such as after a heart attack or a spinal injury.

Most human stem cell research so far has been conducted using stem cells taken or grown from embryonic tissue. This practice has raised serious moral and ethical questions. The debate over this has been quite heated, to say the least. Use of stem cells derived from adult tissue would totally defuse this issue. No longer could anyone have reason to consider stem cell research tainted.

Many people may have grown tired of hearing about new advances in stem cell research by now. Despite the promise, very few practical applications have emerged. One reason for this is that there haven't been a large number of quality stem cells available to researchers. Stem cells may some day allow doctors to repair damaged tissue that will not re−grow, such as after a heart attack or a spinal injury. Just because this hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it won't, somewhere down the line. Stem cells have the potential to change the scope of what medicine can and can't do. Having more stem cells to work with certainly won't slow things down.

Pluripotent (plastic) stem cells are cells that are capable of turning into many different specialized types of cells. During early fetal development, cells are present which will eventually form heart, teeth, bone and all the other body tissues. Once these cells have made their choice, becoming specialized, there's no going back to this plastic stage.

Adults do have some cells that are called stem cells, but they are nowhere near as plastic as embryonic stem cells.

In 2007, researchers first became able to reprogram some adult human stem cells, turning them into more plastic ones that resemble embryonic stem cells. This was done by getting the cells to produce several proteins they normally don't produce. The process involved infecting the cells with a virus, a method that has many drawbacks. The Stanford researchers were able to use tiny circles of purified DNA, in place of virus, to transform adult stem cells taken from fat into more plastic ones. They say their technique is not only safe, it's also simple.

Researchers still aren't sure how closely transformed adult stem cells resemble the embryonic ones. The true measure of a cell is how it functions in the body, and these cells are grown in plastic dishes. The closer the resemblance actually is, the more significant the Stanford research will turn out to be.

A primer from the NIH on stem cells tells more about the different types, what's currently known about them and their potential. It also contains a glossary that explains confusing terms like pluripotent.

An article on the Stanford research was published online, ahead−of−print on February 7, 2010 by the journal Nature Methods.

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