In what could be a major breakthrough in growing transplant tissue in the lab, molecular biologists reported Wednesday that they have grown prostates in mice from single cells.
The four-person team at the Californian biotechnology firm Genentech said they achieved the feat after identifying a primitive, powerful cell called a stem cell in mouse prostates.
The cell, known by its marker CD117, was transplanted below the kidney in lab mice, according to their study, published online by the British-based science journal Nature.
Of 97 of these single-cell transplants, 14 functioning prostates developed.
Stem cells have unleashed enormous interest in recent years because of their theoretical potential to grow specific cells that can be used to replace tissue damaged by disease or accident.
The biggest focus has been on stem cells at the embryonic stage as these are "pluripotent", meaning that they can become any tissue in the body.
There are also "unipotent" adult stem cells, which are already programmed to divide into specific cells, which is the case in this research.
However, isolating these unipotent cells and getting them to regenerate successfully into the desired tissue in living animals has proven a major hurdle.
In 2006, two teams of scientists made a breakthrough in growing a mouse mammary gland from a single stem cell.
The Genentech researchers suspect that men also have a potential population of CD117 stem cells, although only further work will determine whether these cells can tracked down and used as a regenerative source.
The prostate is a small gland located just below the bladder that helps make seminal fluid and expel semen. Prostate cancer is a leading form of cancer in developed countries.