Placenta source of stem cells, researchers say
CEDAR KNOLLS, New Jersey (CNN) -- Researchers say they have found a new source for harvesting thousands of stem cells -- a woman's placenta.
Scientists at the biotechnology firm Anthrogenesis Corporation, also known as AnthroGen, have "discovered a unique multipotent stem cell in the placenta," company president and CEO John Haines said in a teleconference Wednesday. Haines said his company has also discovered a process to retrieve large quantities of these stem cells.
According to Haines, the potential source for these new stem cells is huge because there are four million births annually in the United States alone and after each birth a placenta is expelled.
"Since the stem cells in the placenta are so plentiful," Haines said, "we believe our process will make obsolete the need to use human embryos or aborted fetuses as source of embryonic stem cell research."
Vast research potential
Stem cells are essentially blank cells which have the potential to be programmed or turned into practically any type of cell, such as a nerve cell or liver cell or heart cell. Scientists say these cells have the potential to help treat or cure conditions like diabetes, paralysis, and Parkinson's disease.
Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to be turned into almost any type of cell, but harvesting them is highly controversial because they must come from aborted fetuses or embryos discarded by fertility clinics.
However, researchers are also finding that adult stem cells can be programmed to turn into a variety of cells such as blood, muscle, cartilage and nerve cells. The technique has been tried with cells from adult bone marrow, and just Monday, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Pittsburgh announced they had successfully taken stem cells from fat retrieved by liposuction and turned them into bone, cartilage and muscle cells.
AnthroGen's chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Hariri, said placental stem cells successfully matured into nerve cells, blood vessels, muscular cells, cartilage and bone cells.
The company's claims have not yet been independently verified. None of AnthroGen's research has been published or reviewed and duplicated by peers. The information was only released in a teleconference to reporters.
It is unclear if the placental stem cells more closely resemble embryonic or adult stem cells, thus making it difficult to determine if this research could indeed replace the need for embryonic stem cell research.
Without a study to refer to, scientists currently working with either embryonic or adult stem cells are unable to assess what AnthroGen's announcement means.
A spokesman for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, told CNN researchers cannot comment on AnthroGen's announcement because it is difficult to determine what the company really did until the results are available for review by other scientists.
"Before the importance of this particular research can be determined, the investigators need to publish their data so the scientific community can examine and compare this data to other new sources of stem cells," he said. "We await the publication of the research with great interest."
Dr. John McDonald, who has successfully used embryonic stem cells in the spinal cords of mice at Washington University in St. Louis was also unable to comment on AnthroGen's announcement.
"This appears to be another example of a stem cell that's capable of going down multiple developmental lineages, McDonald said. "This speculation has to pass through peer review for further comment."
Dr. Laura E. Niklason, a bioengineer at Duke University who is working with adult stem cells agreed that "seeing no data, it is impossible to comment on what AnthroGen has discovered."
Based on the description given in the company's press release, Niklason said "it is certainly possible that these cells could be like adult stem cells."
AnthroGen officers told reporters they have submitted their studies for publication. They explained the urgency for announcing their research was because of the restrictions on embryonic stem cell availability. They said AnthroGen's scientific and business goal is to advance stem cell research.
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