Stem Cells: The Future of Medicine? Amazingly Versatile, These Human Cells - Often Taken from Embryos - Are Thought to Hold the Key to Curing Everything from Cancer to Infertility

The Mirror (London, England), May 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

Stem Cells: The Future of Medicine? Amazingly Versatile, These Human Cells - Often Taken from Embryos - Are Thought to Hold the Key to Curing Everything from Cancer to Infertility


Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

THE world's first stem cell bank opened in the UK yesterday bringing with it new hope of finding cures for a whole host of serious illnesses, from heart disease through to blindness and paralysis.

Stem-cell research uses cells taken from human embryos that can grow into many types of tissue or body parts - and it could revolutionise healthcare.

Britain is at the forefront of studies and the new centre, based in Hertfordshire, will give scientists a ready supply of cells to work on.

Much of the research is still in its infancy but it is likely that within the next decade huge advances will be made, transforming medicine and bringing the prospect of longer lives.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the body's basic building blocks. In an embryo they go on to form every body part and organ, including skin, bones, muscles, heart and brain.

Scientists believe that the earlier in life stem cells are taken from the body, the greater their ability to develop into the widest possible range of tissue types.

This means cells taken from embryos just a few days old can develop into most specialised tissues anywhere in the body. Cells from an adult are far more limited in what they can do.

Stem cells can also be taken from the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies but these, too, are thought to be limited in their possible uses.

Even if donor stem cells are used, there is still the risk of tissue rejection. But eventually scientists hope to create tailormade embryos so that patients have their own personal body repair kit of stem cells.

Ethical issues

Human embryos - the fertilised egg before it begins to turn into a foetus - are the source of the most useful stem cells.

But many people, including anti-abortion campaigners, are opposed to any research being carried out on the embryos because they say they are still a human life, no matter how young.

The US has already outlawed stem-cell studies carried out on human embryos in public institutions, although the work can carry on in private clinics.

Under British law, scientists are allowed to conduct research on embryos up to 14 days old. At this stage an embryo is a small bundle of cells about the size of a pin-head.

Most embryos are supplied by IVF clinics after being deemed unsuitable for fertility purposes. They would otherwise be disposed of and patients must sign consent forms for research. But pro-life campaigners are concerned that one day embryos might be created for the sole purpose of research.

Breast enlargement

MAKING "natural" breast implants is one cosmetic way in which

stem cells could be used. Fat cells are taken from a woman's stomach or thigh and are combined with stem cells found in the fat before being injected into the patient's breasts.

The stem cells encourage the growth of new fat and blood vessels, according to University of Tokyo research, leading to healthy, natural-feeling breast tissue.

Previous attempts to increase breast size with fat have failed because some tissue dies, forming hard lumps. But it could eventually become a safer alternative to silicone.

Available: Possibly within three to five years.

Replacement organs

THERE'S a shortage of organs for transplant but this could be solved if patients' own damaged organs were repaired or

replaced using stem cells.

Doctors in Israel have managed to make cells taken from human embryos grow into fully functional kidneys in a mouse.

They say similar results can be achieved with pig embryo cells to create tissue that could be used in people.

Lung tissue, too, could be grown artificially. Researchers

from Imperial College, London, have created lung cells from mouse stem cells and say it could be a lifeline for those with lung conditions or illnesses, including cystic fibrosis. …

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