But lost in the glitz of the cells' potential to treat an array of devastating and sometimes fatal diseases was another quality that, when all is said and done, could match even the prospect of remaking transplant technology.
"Much of the excitement surrounding embryonic stem cell research focuses on their potential for transplantation to repair diseased organs," according to Thaddeus G. Golos, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of obstetrics and gynecology. "The cells are also a valuable model for beginning to understand the puzzles of early human development."
Indeed, a team led by Golos and colleagues at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center has now taken some of the first critical steps to putting stem cells to use to understand early development and maternal and fetal health. Writing in the December online editions of the journal Endocrinology, the team led by Golos reports the development of a stem cell model that mimics the formation of the placenta during the earliest stages of human development.
The lab feat is important because prior to the advent of human embryonic stem cells, science's primary window to early development was through studies of mice and other animal models. Human embryonic stem cells and the work of Golos' team has now brought the very first stages of human development, as an embryo implants itself in the uterus, within reach of science. The work could one day help clinicians better understand and treat diseases of pregnancy such as preeclampsia, a disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period and that, by conservative estimates, kills at least 76,000 women and infants each year.