22 August 2005

Umbilical Cord Blood May Overcome Stem Cell Stumbling Block

by Kate Melville

A report appearing in the journal Cell Proliferation details how researchers, from the University of Texas and Kingston University in the U.K., have produced embryonic-like stem cells from umbilical cord blood. The breakthrough, providing an ethical and reliable source of human stem cells, could substantially speed up the development of new treatments for life-threatening illnesses, injuries and disabilities.

The trans-Atlantic team has been using bioreactors at the Synthecon Corporation to produce stem cells sharing many of the same characteristics as cells found in embryos. Up till now, researchers have relied on so-called adult cells found in blood and bone marrow or cells grown from embryos. The new type detected by the team harnesses the benefits of both. "We have found a unique group of cells that bring together the essential qualities of both types of stem cells for the first time," research leader Dr Colin McGuckin said.

McGuckin added that it's not just the ethical minefield surrounding embryonic research that is slowing down researchers. "Acquiring stem cells from embryos also has major limitations because it is difficult to obtain enough cells to transplant as well as getting the right tissue type for the patient. Using cord blood gets over that obstacle because we can produce more stem cells and, with a global birth rate of 100 million babies a year, there is a better chance of getting the right tissue type for the many patients out there waiting for stem cell therapy," he said.

The team is putting the new technique through its paces by growing defined liver tissue using the new cell type. The NASA-derived bioreactors the team has been using enable them to cultivate greater numbers of cells by mimicking the effects of space microgravity. "Using Synthecon's bioreactors, originally designed by NASA, means the cells are able to expand faster, giving us a greater supply to work with," co-researcher Dr Nico Forraz said. "This system provides more cells for more tests, so we have the potential to make significant progress in applying the new cells to cure difficult to treat conditions such as juvenile diabetes, stroke, heart and liver disease."

In the future, the team is planning to use the technology to create pancreatic tissue as they work towards their goal of developing a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Source: University of Texas