The great stem-cell search

The latest hot spot for stem cells is ... amniotic fluid.

By Page Rockwell
Published January 8, 2007 6:10PM (EST)

Seems like every time we turn around some scientist has uncovered a new source for stem cells. Last spring, it was menstrual blood. This week, it's amniotic fluid. (Women sure are doing their part for stem-cell research!) Researchers at Wake Forest and Harvard Universities report that they've been able to extract stem cells from the fluid extracted during amniocentesis procedures, and that, at least preliminarily, those amniotic stem cells seem to "hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells," according to the Associated Press.

That's important because all stem cells are not created equal; some, like those taken from bone marrow, are mostly used to treat blood-related illnesses like leukemia and not to replicate organ tissue. Embryonic stem cells are more malleable than other types of stem cells, and as such have greater potential to treat a broader range of illnesses and conditions. Similarly, the Wake Forest and Harvard researchers say they've successfully used amniotic stem cells to re-create multiple types of tissue cell types, including brain, liver and bone cells. If amniotic stem cells do turn out to be as all-purpose as embryonic stem cells -- or even if they prove to be almost as malleable -- they could help researchers and advocates sidestep the controversy over embryonic stem cells and proceed with much-needed research and treatment.

But that's a big if. Preliminary tests on patients are years away, the AP reports, and the researchers still don't know how many cell types amniotic stem cells can replicate. And while sidestepping the embryonic-stem-cell controversy certainly seems more expedient than continuing the wide-ranging and often incoherent debate over the destruction of embryos, there's still probably no replacement for embryonic stem cells, which, Harvard stem cell researcher George Daley told the AP, "allow scientists to address a host of other interesting questions in early human development."

Still, it's encouraging to see quasi-magic stem cells turning up in unexpected places, and that reproduction-related fluids have proven so promising lately. Here's hoping researchers are racking their brains for even more renewable sources.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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