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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 10:39 GMT
Call for stem cell banks
Stem cell research has generated huge excitement
People could one day donate their stem cells in much the same way that they are currently asked to offer their organs for transplant.

This is one possibility that comes out of a document just submitted to the UK expert panel now considering the future use of cloning to treat disease.

The document, prepared by the influential Royal Society, says the British Government should consider the feasibility of setting up frozen banks of stem cells - the "master" cells in the body that have the ability to produce both more of themselves and at least one type of specialised cell.

Scientists believe that by controlling the development of such cells they will be able to grow-up in the lab a range of tissues that could then be used to restore or replace diseased areas of the body. There is huge excitement surrounding stem cells and their potential to revolutionise transplant medicine; the research field was even described by Science magazine as the breakthrough of 1999.

Therapeutic cloning

"There is considerable scope for developing therapeutic treatments that use stem cells," says Professor Richard Gardner, chairman of the working group that prepared the Royal Society report.

"Organs damaged by injuries or disease do not always need replacing, and repair would be possible if a suitable source of tissues was available. Stem cells are a potential source of such tissues."

The report is being considered by the Chief Medical Officer for England's expert panel on therapeutic cloning. It has been asked to advise the government on scientific, ethical and legal issues. Its assessment will also cover the implications for stem cell studies.

Therapeutic cloning is controversial because it would require the creation, and experimentation on, large numbers of human embryos. These embryos would also be the source of the most powerful type of stem cells: human embryonic stem cells which have the ability to become any type of tissue in the body.

Umbilical cords

But Professor Gardner told BBC News Online that the use of such early stem cells was likely to remain inefficient for the foreseeable future. He said any bank should focus on more easily obtainable types of stem cells that can be extracted from adult tissue or from discarded umbilical cords and placentas.

"We felt that with the rapid rate at which people are identifying stem cells in different tissues - in adult blood, in adult liver, in adult muscle etc - it would be better to concentrate considerable effort in enriching and purifying for these cells because they could then be used more immediately."

The Society has also highlighted the need for more research into the "re- programming" of nuclei in specialised cells - to, in effect, turn the clock back so that one type of cell can be redirected to become another type of cell.

If successful, this method would avoid some of the technical and ethical problems associated with obtaining stem cells from human embryos.

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See also:

29 Feb 00 |  Health
Diabetes reversed in the lab
05 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Lab grows frog eyes
17 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Stem cells top class of 1999
07 Nov 98 |  Sci/Tech
Cell success has huge potential
06 Nov 98 |  Sci/Tech
'Revolution in a dish'
24 Jun 99 |  Sci/Tech
Human cloning ban condemned
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