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Adult Stem Cells as Tissue Factories

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Baltimore, MD (4/2/99)- The dream that adult stem cells could be used to create organs and to treat cancer, heart disease and other disorders appears to be a step closer to reality. New research confirms that the necessary cells can be isolated from bone marrow and have the capability to form structural and connective tissues.

For the first time, researchers have been able to isolate a particularly rare cell in human bone marrow, the mesenchymal stem cell. These cells can replicate as undifferentiated cells and have the remarkable ability to differentiate into different kinds of tissues including bone, cartilage, fat, tendon, muscle, and marrow stroma. After isolating the cells from donor bone marrow, the researchers accomplished another first, encouraging the stem cells to differentiate into colonies of fat, cartilage and bone cells.

"When we saw that human adult stem cells could be expanded from a single cell that would differentiate to all three lineages, that really clinched it. Each of the lineages that we reported in Science has important health implications associated with them, ranging from the direct regeneration of bone and cartilage injuries, to the treatment of osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and obesity," said Mark F. Pittenger, Ph.D., associate director, Muscle Research and Cell Biology, Osiris Therapeutics.

Isolated marrow-derived stem cells differentiate in vitro to multiple lineages appropriately to the adipogenic (Adipo), chondrogenic (Chondro), and osteogenic (Osteo) lineages.

Adult mesenchymal stem cells go through a sequence of proliferation, commitment (deciding which cell type to be), differentiation (forming the cells) and maturation- the creation of healthy tissue. In a healthy human, these cells take care of the replacement and regeneration of human connective tissues.

How these cells are stimulated to proliferate and differentiate is not well understood. The growth and differentiation conditions for each lineage, such as bone, cartilage and fat, are quite different, involving a combination of growth factors, nutrients, spatial organization and mechanical forces. The new research findings will provide researchers with a way to study these processes outside of the body.

Until this point, stem cell research has concentrated on the potential of hematopoeietic stem cells derived from embyronic tissues. The current research with mesenchymal progenitors marks a new direction in stem cell research and could offer a way around ethical concerns (and federal regulations) on the use of stem cells derived from embryos.

It is exciting to think of growing stem cells to produce complex tissues and organs for the restoration of damaged or diseased tissue. However, much research remains to be done to establish the safety and reliability of such an approach.

The research appears in the April 2, 1999 issue of the journal Science.

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