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Researchers Sniff Out New Source for Stem Cells

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April 3, 2001 -- This news is certainly nothing to sneeze at: Primitive, undeveloped cells taken from the lining of the nasal passage can be grown in a laboratory dish and coaxed into becoming specialized replacement cells for the central nervous system, say researchers from the University of Louisville.

"We can grow stem cells and maintain them in culture. If someone had told us five years ago that they could take [nerve cells] from a person and grow them, we would have said it's just not possible, but now we can get these cells to differentiate into neurons in culture," lead researcher Fred J. Roisen, PhD, professor and chairman of anatomical sciences and neurobiology at the University of Louisville, Ky., tells WebMD. Roisen presented his findings Tuesday at the Experimental Biology 2001 conference in Orlando, Fla.

"It's clearly a very useful strategy with great therapeutic potential: to derive a replacement cell population that could actually come from the same individual," comments Daniel A. Peterson, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School, Chicago. Peterson, who studies the potential therapeutic applications of stem cells for diseases of the central nervous system, was not involved in the current research.

Stem cells are immature, underdeveloped cells that have the ability to turn into different cell types depending upon how they are manipulated in the body or in a lab dish. Neural stem cells, which are programmed to become the essential building blocks of the brain and central nervous system, hold the promise for repairing and/or replacing tissues damaged by trauma or by degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

Neural stem cells normally lie deep within the brain, and until recently, the best sources of these cells have been miscarried or aborted embryos -- a controversial option.

Earlier this year, however, Roisen and colleagues reported in the journal Brain Research that they had successfully isolated stem cells from the lining of the nasal passages of cadavers. In some cases, they were able to retrieve viable cells as late as 18 hours after the donor had died.

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