Monday, January 08, 2007
The Potential of Stem Cells
Stem cells - which have the potential to turn into different cells in the body and could theoretically provide treatment for a number of debilitating diseases - have touched off passionate debate in recent years. Last fall, ads by actor Michael J. Fox became a factor in campaigns by stem cell friendly political candidates and a state referendum on funding of stem cell research.
Today there's more stem cell news. In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University found cells in amniotic fluid that appear to have the same qualities as other stem cells. This discovery would seem to allow researchers to sidestep the controversial "embryonic stem cells," which can be harvested only by destroying an embryo.
When researchers injected these cells, called human AFS cells, into mice, they saw bones, muscles, and nerves grow. This has also been accomplished to varying degrees with human embryonic cells and so-called adult stem cells, such as bone marrow cells.
The goal for all of this research is to find a way to convert these stem cells into therapies that may someday treat illnesses including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.
The new research is promising especially because these AFS cells seem to reproduce as quickly as human embryonic stem cells. Also, the supply would seem nearly limitless, because they're found in the womb of every pregnant woman. Amniotic fluid is routinely extracted from expectant mothers over 35 to check for fetal chromosome abnormalities. The cells also are present in the placenta.
This isn't the first study to show promise in stem cells taken from amniotic or placental cells. Researchers are still working to develop actual therapies - in humans - with any of these various stem cells.
In the case of these AFS cells in particular, any therapies are still many years away, according to the study's lead author, Dr Anthony Atala.
The new finding is exciting, but research on all the types of stem cells will continue. As most stem cell researchers have told us in the past, and as Dr. Atala agrees, different types of stem cells may work better for different illnesses. AFS cells may turn out to be the best for one disease, but for another, human embryonic stem cells may work best. And for yet another, adult stem cells may provide the best remedy.
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