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Embryonic Stem Cell Treatments on the Way

Research Leaps Crucial Hurdle to Use Against Human Diseases
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

July 8, 2002 -- Embryonic stem cells have leapt a scientific barrier to their use as treatments for human disease. In doing so, they reveal secrets that may speed discovery of new cancer drugs.

The exciting thing about stem cells is that they can turn into any other cell in the body. Called "daughter cells," these more specialized cells can replace cells damaged by disease.

Research along these lines recently hit a roadblock. Studies in mouse stem cells showed that they lost instructions, called "imprinting," that tell the cells which of their genes to turn on. Without this imprinting, cells might turn on the wrong genes in the wrong place at the wrong time, causing serious problems.

Now this no longer seems to be a problem. Human embryonic stem cells keep their imprinting as they become daughter cells, report Johns Hopkins University researchers Patrick Onyango, PhD, and colleagues in the July 8 online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's reassuring to learn that the cells we have derived from primordial germ cells are imprinted normally," study co-author John D. Gearhart, PhD, says in a press release. "This is critical information for their possible safe clinical use in the future."

There's one happy byproduct of learning more about imprinting. One major cause of cancer is loss of imprinting in tumor cells. Certain drugs can restore imprinting to these cells.

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