Amid doubts

Stem cell research may not be the answer to human health problems

Published: Monday 15 April 2002

the use of adult stem cells to develop new transplant therapies might not prove to be very viable, indicate two recent studies. The medical world has for long been hopeful that stem cells -- the 'master' cells in the body that can develop into other cell types -- could form the basis of novel treatments for degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and heart diseases.

However, during their study, scientists at the uk-based Edinburgh University found abnormalities in the way stem cells behaved when experimented upon. The scientists took adult stem cells from mouse brains and marked them with a fluorescent tag. The researchers then mixed them with embryonic stem cells.

On first examination, it appeared that the adult brain cells had indeed reverted to the less specialised state of the cells placed alongside them. However, on closer examination, the new cells proliferating in the petri dish contained the florescent marker from the brain cells and the dna from the embryonic stem cells (, March 18, 2002). In other words, the adult cells had simply fused with the embryonic ones and the new cells had twice the number of chromosomes. If used in humans, these hybrid cells could have unknown effects on the body, the scientists claimed.

Similar results were seen by scientists at the University of Florida in Gainesville, usa. Austin Smith, the professor behind the British work, said if the study results were confirmed then it would put a big question mark against the use of adult stem cells. "If nothing else, our study indicates that calls for a halt to embryonic stem cell research are not scientifically justified."

Stem cells have the potential to grow into nearly all the different kinds of tissue in the body, including nerves, bone, skin, muscle and organs. Allied with cloning technology, they could prove revolutionary in the field of organ regeneration. Using stem cells taken from a patient's embryo clone to create replacement cells could completely bypass the problem of tissue rejection, which is at present the problem associated with organ transplants, wherein, the body's immune system rejects the new "foreign" tissue.

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