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Embryonic hope for damaged spines

NERVE cells derived from human embryonic stem cells and transplanted into paralysed rats have enabled the animals to walk again. The findings add to a growing number of studies that suggest embryonic stem cells could have a valuable role to play in treating spinal injuries.

The researchers, whose work was funded by stem cell giant Geron of Menlo Park, California, say trials on people could start in just two years. But the first trials are likely to involve patients with recent spinal cord injuries and localised damage. Treating people who have been paralysed for years or suffer from degenerative nerve diseases would be far more difficult.

Ways will also have to be found to prevent people rejecting the stem cells. One possible alternative to immunosuppressant drugs, Geron president Thomas Okarma told the meeting last week, would be to first give patients bone marrow stem cells from the same source as the nerve cells. This might trick the patients' immune system into developing tolerance.

Researchers are exploring a number of approaches to repairing damaged spines, including drugs that overcome spinal cells' reluctance to regrow, ways of bridging the gap between severed nerves and transplants of various tissues, including adult stem cells derived from bone marrow and nerve cells from the nose. Human trials of some treatments, such as using nose cells, have already begun.

But Okarma thinks adult cells have serious limitations as a mass-market treatment, because not many cells can be grown from a single source. That is not a problem with embryonic stem cells (ESCs). "One cell bank derived from a single embryo produces enough neurons to treat 10 million Parkinson's disease patients," says Okarma.

What's more, he claims, adult stem cells may not be as versatile. "At this moment, there is very little hard evidence that a bone marrow stem cell can turn into anything but blood or that a skin stem cell can become anything but skin." ESC
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
2-Jul-2003


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