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Experts Say Stem Cells Promise Medical Revolution (Reuters)... disease, injecting stem cells into the area of the brain that controls muscle movement,...... by providing skin grafts spinal cord injuries; and cancer patients who have lost cells and tissue to radiation...- Jul 16 2:21 PM ET

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Posted on: 07/16/2001

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Monday July 16 2:21 PM ET "Experts Say Stem Cells Promise Medical Revolution"

Experts Say Stem Cells Promise Medical Revolution

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A revolution is coming in medicine, and versatile human cells called stem cells -- some formed just days after a sperm cell fertilizes an egg and others harbored inside the bodies of children and adults -- promise to lead the way, researchers say.

Stem cells offer the potential to provide treatments for a fantastic array of diseases affecting millions of people around the world. But it remains mere potential.

One reason is that much more work needs to be done to gain a fuller understanding of the biology of stem cells and perfect therapies that could be used to treat people.

Another reason is money. President Bush (news - web sites) is mulling whether to allow federal funds to be used to support research involving stem cells harvested from human embryos.

"I think it will be a revolution, a paradigm shift, in how we treat disease," said Helen Blau, who chairs the department of molecular pharmacology at Stanford University School of Medicine. "You enlist the body's own resources to fight its own disease. That's what's so attractive to me about it."

Doctors currently use drugs and surgery to try to shore up or treat tissues and organs damaged by disease. But because stem cells can transform themselves into many other cell types with the right prompting, doctors may be able to replace the damaged tissues and organs to restore healthy function.

So for people with Parkinson's disease (news - web sites), injecting stem cells into the area of the brain that controls muscle movement, where the ailment kills nerve cells, might regenerate the neurons and reverse the disease. For diabetics, the stem cells might regenerate certain cells in the pancreas so the body can make its own insulin rather than relying on shots of it.

"They truly do have the ability to form anything in the body," said University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. James Thomson, who in 1998 became the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells.

Experts said stem cells also could be used to treat: Alzheimer's disease (news - web sites); stroke; heart attack; multiple sclerosis; blood, bone and bone marrow ailments; severe burns by providing skin grafts; spinal cord injuries; and cancer patients who have lost cells and tissue to radiation and chemotherapy.

"There's a lot of science that still needs to be done before we have good treatments. That's not to say that we won't. In three to five years we may have early treatments using these stem cells," said UCLA researcher Dr. Marc Hedrick, who found adult stem cells in fat removed in liposuction.


The current political debate focuses on embryonic stem cells versus so-called adult stem cells, a misnomer because they are also found in children.

About five days after fertilization, the human embryo becomes a blastocyst -- a hollow sphere of about 100 cells. Cells in its outer layer go on to form the placenta and other organs needed to support fetal development in the uterus. The inner cells go on to form virtually all of the tissues of the body. These are the embryonic stem cells used in research.

Adult stem cells are harbored in the bodies of children and adults. They are more specialized than embryonic stem cells and give rise to specific cell types. For example, certain stem cells in the bone marrow spawn red blood cells, white blood cells and blood platelets.

Experts previously believed adult cells did not offer the promise of their embryonic cousins due to this lack of versatility, but recent research suggests they can turn into many more cell types than once believed possible.

Dr. Neil Theise of New York University Medical Center, who has shown that adult stem cells may be as flexible as the embryonic ones, cited strengths and weaknesses for each.

Theise said the advantages of embryonic stem cells include two important qualities: they can become almost anything in the body, and they can be grown in culture in an unlimited quantity. The disadvantages are that a patient's immune system might reject transplants of embryonic stem cells just as some organ transplants are rejected, and that runaway growth of embryonic stem cells could produce tumors, Theise said.

A key advantage of adult stem cells is that because they would be taken from the very patient who would receive them in treatment, there are no rejection issues, Theise said.

Disadvantages include: questions about whether they can transform themselves as readily as embryonic stem cells; difficulty in growing adult cells in culture at the quantity needed to facilitate transplants; and worry that years of exposure to toxins, radiation and DNA replicating errors could leave them with genetic abnormalities, experts said.


Researchers said using transplants of stem cells to regenerate tissue and organs -- essentially injecting the stem cells into the area of damage to achieve cellular regeneration -- may be one of the first therapeutic uses.

"It's the most crude way to use these cells. But theoretically that could work. But I think there are going to be more refined, subtle approaches," Theise said.

Thomson said one important use for embryonic stem cells would be in the area of drug development.

Researchers would be able to test a drug's therapeutic effects and toxic side effects in human tissue without using a laboratory animal as a proxy.

"For example ... heart cells in humans and mice are very different," Thomson said. "And there's been a whole series of drugs that we tested on mice that got to (human) clinical trials that ended up being toxic to the human heart and that's because it was tested on mice and not humans."

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