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Easy stem-cell source sparks interest

Researchers find amniotic fluid offers advantages

LOS ANGELES -- Researchers have found stem cells in human amniotic fluid that appear to have many of the key benefits of embryonic stem cells while avoiding their knottiest ethical, medical, and logistical drawbacks, according to a study published yesterday.

Researchers from Wake Forest University and Harvard Medical School found that the stem cells -- easy to harvest from the fluid left over from amniocentesis tests given to pregnant women -- can be transformed into a greater range of cell types than previous studies have found.

The researchers were able to create new bone, heart muscle, blood vessels, fat, nerve, and liver tissues from the amniotic stem cells, according to the study published online by the journal Nature Biotechnology.

"So far, we've been successful with every cell type we've attempted to produce from these stem cells," said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and senior author of the report.

The finding points to a promising avenue of research that sidesteps the hurdles facing embryonic stem cell research, which has been stymied by moral objections to the destruction of embryos that occurs when cells are harvested.

Most of the work involving human embryonic stem cells is ineligible for the more than $25 billion the federal government spends on research each year. But amniotic fluid stem cell studies are already being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The study also suggests another advantage: Unlike embryonic cells, which can form tumors when implanted in lab animals, amniotic fluid stem cells do not appear to do so.

"If everything that people think about them turns out to be true, they'll be a powerful source for therapeutic cells," said Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the study.

It is still unclear whether stem cells from amniotic fluid -- the liquid that cushions babies in the womb -- can give rise to the full range of cell types that embryonic stem cells can produce.

"They can clearly generate a broad range of important cell types, but they may not do as many tricks as embryonic stem cells," said Dr. Robert Lanza, a prominent embryonic stem cell researcher and head of scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester.

But even if the amniotic fluid stem cells turn out to be less flexible, they may still be an important tool in the nascent field of regenerative medicine.

Dr. Dario Fauza, coordinator of the surgical research laboratories at Children's Hospital Boston, has used the cells to grow tissue to repair defective diaphragms and tracheas in sheep.

He has asked the Food and Drug Administration for permission to do the same for children born with herniated diaphragms. It would be the first human clinical trial involving amniotic fluid stem cells, he said.

Two Swiss scientists, Dr. Dorthe Schmidt and Dr. Simon Hoerstrup of University Hospital Zurich, have used amniotic fluid stem cells to grow heart valves. They are testing them in sheep.

The stem cells "may not be as earth-shattering a discovery as human embryonic stem cells, but these cells could prove to be equally important for medical therapy," Lanza said. "I think this is an exciting breakthrough."

Amniotic fluid stem cells lie somewhere between the two major categories of stem cells: embryonic and adult.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from days-old embryos. Nearly all the development is still to come, so those cells are extremely flexible.

That trait, called pluripotency, is the reason researchers believe embryonic stem cells could offer cures for a wide range of ailments. They envision using the cells to replace the faulty islet cells that leave diabetes patients without enough insulin, and to grow fresh brain tissue to treat stroke victims, among other things. But they don't know how.

Adult stem cells are narrowly focused on replenishing types of tissue that wear out over a lifetime, such as skin, hair, and blood. Researchers worldwide are looking for ways to expand the cells' range of capabilities.

Amniotic fluid stem cells are sloughed off by the developing fetus. Atala and his colleagues set out to determine just how plentiful and flexible the cells might be.

The researchers studied 10 - milliliter samples of fluid extracted from pregnant women who had amniocentesis tests to screen their babies for genetic abnormalities. Of the myriad cells that make up amniotic fluid, the researchers found about 1 percent had a surface marker that is a hallmark of embryonic stem cells.

After being converted, the cells did not form the tumors that are common with embryonic stem cells, the researchers said.

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