A team of scientists, based in UK, have grown human nerve cells in the lab, in the first successful attempt to control the development of embryonic stem cells. Their work is a major step towards the production of replacement tissues for treating neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers worldwide have been in heavy competition over the past few years to capture the potential of embryonic stem cells - a kind of 'template' cell - by directing their differentiation into a specialised cell such as a nerve or muscle cell. The Britain-based team, headed by Dr Martin Cliffer,University's Institute of Reproduction and Development together with colleagues in Israel and
Singapore, is the first to succeed. Their results are reported in this week's issue of Nature biotechnology.
Great hope has been placed in stem cells because their ability to grow into any type of cell means they could be used to develop new tissues for disease treatment, and possibly organs for transplantation. If nerve cells can be grown from scratch in the lab, for example, they may eventually be able to be injected into the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease to replace degenerating tissue.
"Because human embryonic stem cells represent, in principle, an indefinitely renewable source of any type of human cell, they have major applications in research and medicine," said a team member Professor Alan Trounson."It must be noted that almost all of the wide-ranging potential applications of [embryonic stem] cell technology in human medicine are based on the assumption that it will be
possible to grow [embryonic stem] cells on a large scale, to introduce genetic modifications into them, and to direct their differentiation," the researchers wrote. Their success in maintaining stem cell lines in culture for an extended period, isolating early-stage nerve cells and nurturing them into mature nerve cells, is an important demonstration that the speculative potential of stem cells can actually be harnessed in practice.