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Stem Cells Ease Sickle Cell Anemia

Scientists Treat Sickle Cell Anemia in Mice by Making Skin Cells Act Like Embryonic Stem Cells
WebMD Health News

Dec. 6, 2007 -- Stem cells may treat sickle cell anemia, new research shows.

Sickle cell anemia is the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S. It causes red blood cells to become misshapen. Those cells tend to pile up in blood vessels, making it hard for the blood to carry oxygen around the body.

Scientists today announced that they have used stem cells to curb sickle cell anemia symptoms in mice.

The stem cells "rescued" the mice from sickle cell anemia symptoms, write the researchers, who warn that more work is needed to prevent possible dangerous side effects from stem cell treatment.

Here's a quick look at how the study worked.

First, the researchers took skin cells from mice that had sickle cell anemia. Next, they used retroviruses to carry genes -- including a cancer gene -- into the skin cells. The inserted genes caused the skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

Then, the scientists coaxed the fledgling stem cells into precursors of cells that make red blood cells. The researchers fixed the sickle cell gene glitch in those cells and removed the cancer gene.

When the resulting cells were injected into the mice, the mice's sickle cell symptoms eased so much that the sickle cell mice resembled mice without sickle cell anemia.

But using retroviruses and cancer genes to transform skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells may have long-term risks, and it will take more work to learn how to limit those risks, write the researchers.

They included Jacob Hanna, MD, PhD, of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The study appears in today's advance online edition of Science.

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