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'Missing Link' Stem Cells may Shorten Path to Therapies

The discovery of a mouse embryonic stem cell startlingly similar to its human counterpart will likely speed progress toward the regeneration of healthy cells and organ tissue in people, two studies reported Wednesday.

The newly-found "epiblast" stem cells, taken from the inner-most layer of week-old rodent embryos, will provide a better model in testing potential therapies for human diseases and injuries, the researchers said.

"They are a missing link between mouse and human embryonic stem cells," Roger Pedersen, who headed a research team at Cambridge University, told AFP.

The other group was led by Ronald McKay at Oxford.

Both studies, published in Nature, were hailed by other scientists as a breakthrough that would shed light on the origin of human embryo stem cells and help fulfill the rich promise of cell-based medicine.

Adult bone-marrow stem cells are already used in the treatment of leukemia, and experiments suggest stems cells could also yield effective treatments for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injury, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and numerous other illnesses.

One of the great challenges of cell biology is figuring out how stem cells -- found in embryos and in certain adult tissues -- remain unspecialized or "pluripotent," maintaining the capacity to become virtually any type of cell found in blood, nerves and individual organs.

Another difficulty is identifying the molecular signals that trigger this transformation.

Scientists have successfully grown mice embryo stem-cell lines in the laboratory for decades, and human ones since the late 1990s.

But until today the two kinds of cells looked and behaved very differently, limiting the parallels that could be drawn between the two species and raising questions about what accounted for the divergence.

"It was perplexing," Pedersen told AFP
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