U stem cell finding unveiled

Dan Haugen

University stem cell researchers unveiled a discovery last week that is likely to fuel much scientific and political debate.

Though further testing needs to be done, Stem Cell Institute director Dr. Catherine Verfaillie announced at a press conference Thursday that she and her colleagues have evidence certain rare stem cells taken from adult bone marrow display some traits of embryonic stem cells.

Verfaillie discovered the cells – called multipotent adult progenitor, or MAP, cells – by accident while working on other research. After scientists studied the cells for more than five years, the findings were published last week in the science journal Nature.

The researchers extracted the MAP cells from adult mouse and rat marrow. Then, in culture dishes, researchers were able to induce the cells to specialize into several major cell types, including bone, cartilage, fat and liver cells. They were also able to produce some “that have characteristics of brain cells,” Verfaillie said.

Stem cells are cells that have not yet become specialized into specific tissue types. Scientists believe they have the potential to grow into any type of cell found in the body and could be used to treat diseases.

Thus far, the most prevalent and usable source of human stem cells for researchers has been early-stage embryos that otherwise would have been discarded at fertility clinics.

Some anti-abortion activists object to this practice, and conservatives on Capitol Hill have fought to ban research that uses embryonic stem cells.

The University’s announcement will likely lend ammunition to opponents of embryonic stem cell research, but Verfaillie said the findings do not end the demand for such research.

“It doesn’t really overlap completely,” Verfaillie said. “While we have found many similarities, there are also a number of characteristics that are still separate between the two cell types.”

The University researchers had no success, for example, in getting the bone marrow-derived cells to grow into heart muscle tissue.

“There may be particular diseases that would be more easily treatable with one cell type versus the other cell type,” Verfaillie said. “Both fields are in fairly early stages. These studies should go on in parallel.”

Nature published the findings alongside a National Institute of Health study by Dr. Ronald McKay that used embryonic stem cells. The study found transplanting embryonic mouse stem cells into rats reduced the symptoms of a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease.

At the press conference, some reporters questioned the timing of the studies’ publication, but Nature editor Natalie DeWitt said it was a coincidence that the journal received both studies within two weeks of each other.

Clinical applications will likely not be seen for several years, but Verfaillie and others said they believe stem cell research might eventually lead to treatments for a variety of diseases, including Parkinson’s and hemophilia.

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]