Embryonic-Like Stem Cells Found in Umbilical Cord Blood

If confirmed, the cells could offer way around current ethical issues

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 17, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- In a potential medical breakthrough, British and U.S. researchers have produced embryonic-like cells from umbilical cord blood.

If these stem cells are, in fact, similar to embryonic stem cells, their discovery may speed the development of treatments for diseases such as diabetes, liver failure, spinal injury, stroke and heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, experts say.

An additional advantage of generating embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood is that it bypasses ethical objections surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, but because they come from human embryos their use in medicine is controversial, pitting science against those who believe that using these cells destroys human life.

The report appears in the August issue of Cell Proliferation.

"This is the first time that a team has been able to get stem cells from a non-embryonic source with embryonic stem cell characteristics," said study co-author Nico Forraz, a senior researcher at the Kingston University School of Life Sciences, in London.

"It's incredibly exciting," said study co-author Larry Denner, associate director of research at the Stark Diabetes Center, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. "Being able to use pluripotent stem cells (stem cells that can become any type of cell) that are available from cord blood really speaks for itself. The potential is there."

In their research, the British-American team developed techniques that enabled them to remove all the mature cells from the cord blood, revealing a very small population of cells with qualities similar to those seen in embryonic stem cells.

Denner noted that these cells are very rare. "We take a third of a cup of cord blood, and we get 50,000 potential stem cells, and of these there may only be a couple that are embryonic-like stem cells," he said.

In the future, Forraz believes these cells from cord blood might be used to treat diabetes and other diseases. "This offers a great source of flexibility compared to embryonic stem cells. Despite all the ethical controversy, scientifically, there are already over 1 million cord blood samples banked. It widens the possibility of clinical applications," he said.

Using these cells, the researchers have been able to make liver tissue, Forraz said. "Using this system, we are also working on making blood vessels," he added. "We would use these blood vessels to vascularize the liver tissue we would make. You could also use these engineered vessels to treat cardiovascular disease."

Denner said that his team has also shown that these umbilicus-derived cells can become pancreatic cells. "We think that this population of cells can give rise to a lot of different types of cells," he said.

However, the Texas researcher remains cautious. He stressed that it's still not clear whether or not these cells are truly embryonic stem cells.

"They certainly share many of characteristics we have tested so far," he said. "They have a lot of key characteristics with embryonic stem cells; whether they're identical or not is still a question. But if they act like embryonic stem cells, it may not be necessary to prove they are identical," he said.

One expert considers the findings potentially important, but inconclusive.

"It's very promising," said Dr. Hugh Taylor, an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine. "But markers on cells do not necessarily mean that they are functionally embryonic stem cells."

Taylor believes the researchers need to prove that these cells can become many different types of cells, just like embryonic stem cells, "before we can be assured that they found what they think they found."

Being able to generate some cell types, such as liver or blood vessels, is not surprising, Taylor said. "These cells may be closer to embryonic stem cells than adult stem cells," he said. "But we would really like to see these cells become many different cell types like we can get from embryonic stem cells."

More information

The National Institutes of Health can tell you more about stem cells.

SOURCES: Nico Forraz, Ph.D., senior researcher, Kingston University School of Life Sciences, London; Larry Denner, Ph.D., associate director, research, Stark Diabetes Center, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston; Hugh Taylor, M.D., associate professor, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; August 2005 Cell Proliferation
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