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Virgin birth method could found stem cells

The phenomenon that leads to "virgin births" in some species looks like a promising source of embryonic stem cells. Researchers are on the brink of obtaining human stem cells this way for the first time, and animal experiments suggest such cells are indistinguishable from normal stem cells.

In parthenogenesis, an unfertilised egg keeps two sets of chromosomes and begins developing as if it had been fertilised. Some insects and reptiles can reproduce this way but even though an electric or chemical stimulus can induce parthenogenesis in mammals, the resulting embryos die after a few days. And that, according to its proponents, is the beauty of the technique as far as stem cells are concerned: it produces embryos that could never become human beings. So destroying these embryos to obtain stem cells would avoid the ethical concerns that have led to restrictions or bans on embryonic stem cell research in many countries.

However, while the technique works in mice and monkeys (New Scientist, 26 October 2001, p 14), attempts with human eggs have not got far. Until now, that is. A team led by fertility specialist David Wininger at biotech firm Stemron of Maryland has grown parthenogenetic human embryos to the blastocyst stage, at which stem cells can be obtained. Cells taken from one of the embryos survived for a few days (Stem Cells, vol 21, p 152).

"It's the first time I know of parthenogenetic cells in humans," says Kent Vrana of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, whose team pioneered the work in monkeys.

The next step is to get the cells to grow in culture indefinitely: that is, to obtain a stem cell line. In monkeys, such a cell line has been growing for over two years, and it makes the human experiments all the more relevant.

According to Vrana, extensive analysis of the monkey cells suggests that they are indistinguishable from normal embryonic stem cells. "They are identical to ESCs by every known criterion we have
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
23-Apr-2003


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