Stem Cell Ethics Breakthrough

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A study published in the Jan. 7 online edition on the journal Nature Biotechnology says that stem cells derived from human amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds the developing fetus) appear to offer many of the benefits of embryonic stem cells -- including the ability to grow into brain, muscle, bone and other tissues. The difference is that these stem cells are derived from the amniotic fluid in the womb, and unlike with embryonic stem cells, the embryo is unharmed. This means that we can potentially have the full benefits of stem cells without the ethical problem of taking a potential life to potentially save a life. Amniotic stem cells can be easily obtained though amniocentesis which is a safe procedure regularly done in older pregnant women to screen for birth defects by inserting a needle into the womb and drawing out the fluid.

Researchers from the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Children's Hospital Boston found that amniotic cells in the laboratory can grow into all of the major types of cells, dividing at the rate of once every 36 hours. Researchers coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into brain cells and injected them into the skulls of mice with diseased brains. The stem cells replaced the diseased areas and appeared to create new connections with surrounding healthy neurons. Researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to become bone cells and implanted them in a mouse. The study found the stem cells calcified and turned into dense, healthy bone. The researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into muscle, fat, blood vessel and liver cells. (source: Kaiser Network Daily Reports Jan 7)

In the past, adult stems cells, were put forward as a way to generate stem cells without harming life, but they had limitations: adult stem cells can only grow into the part that they were derived from while embryonic stem cells can grow into any part. Because amniotic stems cells are "somewhere between" embryonic stems cells and adult stem cells, it appears they have the advantages of both: Like embryonic stem cells they are versatile and can grow into all major groups, and like adult stem cells they are stable and easier to maintain in laboratory dishes and can be kept for years without developing tumors. (source: Newsweek)

Because the cells are a genetic match to the developing fetus, tissues grown from them in the laboratory will not be rejected if they are used to treat birth defects in that newborn, which is of course not possible with embryonic stem cells which would mean the destruction of that embryo. Dario Fauza, a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital in Boston is seeking permission from the FDA to try the method in children diagnosed with birth defects while in the womb. He hopes to grow replacement tissues from their own amniotic cells and use those tissues to repair their defects after birth. Additionally, because amniotic stem cells remain stable for years, the cells could be frozen, providing a personalized tissue bank for use later in life. (source: The Washington Post)

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