Embryo stem cells turned to blood

Even as the Senate began debating the topic of using stem cells from human embryos, a research team reported that it had converted the cells into all the various types of blood cells. This result takes a step toward using embryonic stem cells as a source of blood for transfusions or as an alternative to bone marrow transplants for cancer patients, suggests team leader James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Human embryonic stem cells have great medical promise in part because scientists expect to be able to transform them into every kind of cell or tissue in the body. Theoretically, this would provide an endless source of cells and organs for transplants.

Thomson’s group, which was the first to isolate human embryonic cells, has now found means to culture the stem cells so they develop into blood cell precursors and then into mature red and white blood cells and platelets. Scientists have done this previously with mouse embryonic stem cells, but the resulting blood cells haven’t survived long when transplanted into mice. “It’s a huge difficulty,” notes Thomson.

To see if a similar problem exists in primates, including people, his team plans to work with monkeys and their embryonic stem cells. The Wisconsin scientists reported the new findings in the Sept. 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.