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A breakthrough in human stem cell research, producing embryonic-like cells from umbilical cord blood may substantially speed up the development of treatments for life-threatening illnesses, injuries and disabilities. The discovery made during a project undertaken with experts from the University of Texas Medical Branch and the Synthecon Corporation in the United States provides medical researchers and physicians with an ethical and reliable source of human stem cells for the first time.

The study, funded by the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry, is led by Dr Colin McGuckin and Dr Nico Forraz from Kingston University's School of Life Sciences. It represents a significant step forward in the fast-developing field of stem cell research. Until now, experts have struggled to find a supply of cells in sufficient numbers that does not offend previous critics of stem cell research. The latest advance looks set to overcome such difficulties.

The trans-Atlantic team has been working with Drs Randall Urban, Larry Denner and Ronald Tilton from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. They have been using bioreactors at the Synthecon Corporation base in Houston enabling them to produce stem cells sharing many of the same characteristics as cells found in embryos. Research has so far relied on so-called adult cells found in blood and bone marrow from birth onwards or cells grown from embryos. The new type detected by the team harnesses the benefits of both. "We have found a unique group of cells that bring together the essential qualities of both types of stem cells for the first time," Dr McGuckin said.

The researchers findings may bring renewed hope to people awaiting treatment for a range of serious illnesses such as Diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease and multiple sclerosis. "Acquiring stem cells from embryos also has major limitations because it is difficult to obtain enough cells to transplant as well as getting the right tissue
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