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Stem Cells—Multiple Sources Stem from New Technologies, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

During the 1980s, a biologist at Stanford University, Irving L. Weissman, was the first to isolate the stem cell that builds human blood (the mammalian hematopoietic cell).  Later, Weissman isolated a stem cell in a laboratory mouse and went on to co-found SysTemix, Inc. (now part of drug giant Novartis) and StemCells, Inc. to continue this work in a commercial manner.
In November 1998, two different university-based groups of researchers announced that they had accomplished the first isolation and characterization of the human embryonic stem cell (HESC).  One group was led by James A. Thomson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  The second was led by John D. Gearhart at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine at Baltimore.  The HESC is among the most versatile basic building blocks in the human body.  Embryos, when first conceived, begin creating small numbers of HESCs, and these cells eventually differentiate and develop into the more than 200 cell types that make up the distinct tissues and organs of the human body.  If scientists can reproduce and then guide the development of these basic HESCs, then they could theoretically grow replacement organs and tissues in the laboratory—even such complicated tissue as brain cells or heart cells.
Ethical and regulatory difficulties arose from the fact that the only source for human “embryonic” stem cells was, as per the name, human embryos.  A laboratory can obtain these cells in one of three ways: 1) inserting a patient’s DNA into an egg, thus producing a blastocyst that is a clone of the patient—which is then destroyed after only a few days of development; 2) harvesting stem cells from aborted fetuses; or 3) harvesting stem cells from embryos that are left over and unused after an in vitro fertilization of a hopeful mother.  (Artificial in vitro fertilization requires the creation of a large number of test tube embryos per instance, but only one of these embryos is used in the final process.)
A rich source of similar but “non-embryonic” stem cells is bone marrow.  Doctors have been performing bone marrow transplants in humans for decades.  This procedure essentially harnesses the healing power of stem cells, which proliferate to create healthy new blood cells in the recipient.  Several other non-embryonic stem cell sources have great promise.
Fortunately, tremendous strides have been made in harvesting stem cells through non-embryonic means.  Scientists have discovered that there are stem cells in existence in many diverse places in the adult human body, and they are thus succeeding in creating stem cells without embryos, by utilizing “post-embryonic” cells, such as cells from marrow.  Such cells are already showing the ability to differentiate and function in animal and human recipients.  Best of all, these types of stem cells may not be plagued by problems found in the use of HESCs, such as the tendency for HESCs to form tumors when they develop into differentiated cells.
Methods of developing “post-embryonic” stem cells without the use of human embryos:
=         Adult Skin Cells—Exposure of harvested adult skin cells to viruses that carry specific genes, capable of reprogramming the skin cells so that they act as stem cells.
=         Parthenogenesis—manipulation of unfertilized eggs.
=         Other Adult Cells—Harvesting adult stem cells from bone marrow or brain tissue.
=         Other Cells—harvesting of stem cells from human umbilical cords, placentas or other cells.
=         De-Differentiation—use of the nucleus of an existing cell, such as a skin cell, that is altered by an egg that has had its own nucleus removed.
=         Transdifferentiation—making a skin cell de-differentiate back to its primordial state so that it can then morph into a useable organ cell, such as heart tissue.
=         Pluripotent state cells (iPSCs).  Adult cells are drawn from a skin biopsy and treated with reprogramming factors.
=         Most recently, researchers have found it possible to harvest stem cells from a wide variety of tissue.

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