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June 3, 2011 10:33 pm

Pioneering research offers hope

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The most versatile stem cells are those derived from blastocysts – recently fertilised human embryos.

They can be maintained indefinitely in cell culture and then prompted with appropriate biochemical signals to develop into almost any type of specialised cell that might be needed for medical purposes.

A pioneering clinical trial of embryonic stem cells, for treating spinal cord injuries, has started in the US under the auspices of Geron, the Californian biotechnology company.

The first UK trial of embryonic stem cells is likely to be aimed at saving the sight of patients going blind from macular degeneration.

Another source of stem cells is a foetus aborted for medical reasons. These foetal stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells but they are well suited for some applications. ReNeuron, a UK company, has begun to test the effectiveness of neural stem cells of foetal origin in improving the brain function of stroke patients.

Oristem’s blood-derived cells fall into the broad category of adult stem cells, which maintain a lifelong existence in many body tissues. The bone marrow is a rich source of adult stem cells – and many experts regard bone marrow transplants, which have been used for many years to treat leukaemia, as the original stem cell therapy.

Adult stem cells are in clinical trials to treat a range of diseases – for example to repair nerve damage in multiple sclerosis and to restore heart muscle function in heart failure.

Although Oristem’s founders said their stem cells would be almost as versatile as embryonic stem cells in their potential applications, some doctors may not be convinced until they have seen clinical data of their effectiveness.

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