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Stem cells could be hard to use

9th June 2008

It may be much harder than scientists originally believed to use stem cells as medicine, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist says.

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Experts once hoped a single "master" cell could potentially be used to repair all damage in a single organ, but new evidence has emerged to suggest that different stem cells might work together in the same organ.

According to Mario Capecchi, a professor at the University of Utah, experimental treatments relying on the wrong type might fail because stem cell biology may be more complicated that was previously thought.

He wrote in the journal Nature Genetics that he had found surprising clues indicating that the hoped-for new generation of treatments could be a long time coming.

Stem cells have special qualities compared with other cells in the body, in that they not only reproduce themselves, but also have the ability to create any tissue in the body.

However, cells with more limited, but still useful, abilities have been found in the organs of adults, steering the debate away from the controversial medical use of human embryos.

If "adult stem cells" could be found and extracted, scientists believe they could form the basis of treatments. But Capecchi said identifying the most useful cells would not necessarily be straightforward.

After developing a new way of tracking the position of adult stem cells in the intestines of mice, Capecchi found the cells were not spread evenly through the organ, but clustered mostly in the upper third of the intestine.

That meant that other adult stem cells were likely to exist elsewhere in the gut, where they were busy renewing tissues, he said.

Any therapy created using only one kind of stem cell might have a limited effect on the whole organ, therefore.

A uniform stem cell population was generally assumed in each organ, but multiple stem cell populations in a given organ increase the complexity of the processes.

Experts said the finding fitted with other evidence suggesting the presence of different stem cell types, suggesting a similar picture was likely in other organs of the body.

 

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