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Researchers Develop Primate Stem Cells from Unfertilized Embryo

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Mass. report in today''s Science that they have developed a large variety of specialized cell types -- including heart and brain cells -- from embryonic monkey stem cells through a process called parthenogenesis.

The researchers reported that they had generated a "pluripotent" stem cell line that they called cyno-1 (so named for the species of monkey). From that cell line, they already have produced brain neurons, heart muscle, smooth muscle, beating ciliated epithelial cells and a number of other kinds of cells, demonstrating, they said, "broad differentiation capabilities of primate stem cells derived by parthenogenesis."

The cell line has grown continuously for 10 months.

The stem cell line was produced by collaboration between researchers from ACT, led by Jose Cibelli, Ph.D. and Michael West, Ph.D., Wake Forest researchers Kathleen A. Grant, Ph.D. and Kent E. Vrana, Ph.D., Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (Lorenz Studer, M.D.), and the Mayo Clinic (Peter Wettstein, Ph.D.).

Grant and Vrana, both professors of physiology and pharmacology, said the most remarkable differentiation was the development of midbrain dopamine neurons. "This is a specialized population of neurons whose efficient generation from primate embryonic stem cells had not been reported previously."

"The potential clinical applications include treatment of diseases where specific cell types have become dysfunctional. These diseases include a broad array of medical problems, such as Parkinson''s and Huntington''s diseases, heart disease and diabetes," West said. The parthenogenetic process leads to stem cells without creating embryos that normally require an egg from the mother and a sperm from the father. Parthenogenesis is defined as a process by which embryonic development is initiated directly from an unfertilized egg cell.

Parthenogenesis results in a microscopic ball of cells, called a blastocyst, typically 50 to 200 cells. When an egg is fertilized by sperm in the body or in vitro, it can then grow into a fetus. But the blastocyst that results from parthenogenesis does not become a viable fetus.

The cyno-1 stem cell line was developed from this reproductively non-viable blastocyst. "Neurons and other cells derived from this renewable source could alleviate some of the technical problems of human cell therapy," Cibelli said, "including rejection of transplanted tissue."

Vrana said, "Parthenogenesis offers an important new therapeutic strategy for a host of medical conditions." However, all of the researchers emphasized that human clinical applications will require years of further research and development.

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