Monday, June 20, 2005

Medicine - Stem Cell Breakthrough

It always bugs me when I see the word "breakthrough" in a medical headline. Once you start reading it invariably says something like, "the procedure will be ready in 5 to 10 years". But this looks promising and it gets around the use of aborted foetuses. It is also being put to some use now.

Professor Josef Käs and Dr Jochen Guck from the University of Leipzig have developed a procedure that can extract and isolate embryo-quality stem cells from adult blood for the first time. This new technique could unlock the stem cell revolution and stimulate a boom in medical research using stem cells.

Stem cells are cells which have not yet differentiated into specialised tissues such as skin, brain or muscle. They promise a new class of regenerative medicine, which could repair apparently permanent damage such as heart disease or Parkinson’s. The cells are currently taken from aborted human foetuses, an issue which has led to controversy and opposition in many parts of the world. Any alternative source, such as voluntary adult donations, could spark a boom in new cures.

Here is the "but" part.

The optical stretcher can already test 3,600 cells per minute. This is not yet fast enough for industrial separation of millions of high grade stem cells, but it promises a realistic alternative to embryo use if it can be scaled up. Meanwhile, it is already being used to isolate low-grade stem cells which can develop into skin. In collaboration with medical professionals in Leipzig, elderly patients are being treated for persistent non-healing wounds. Low-grade stem cells isolated from the patient’s own blood are applied to the wound to kick-start the healing process.

Let's hope they can scale it up.

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