Researchers have found a way to turn cells from human testes into adult stem cells, raising the possibility that men could eventually have spare cells from their own testicles converted into other kinds of tissue for medical treatments and bodily “repairs.” Lead researcher Thomas Skutella harvested spermatogonial cells, which normally mature into sperm, from men and used a series of chemicals to turn them into various cell types…. “We made them into skin, structures of the gut, cartilage, bone, muscle and neurons,” says Skutella [New Scientist].
The achievement is of particular interest because it avoids the ethical quandaries involved in using embryonic stem cells, which require destroying a human embryo. Using testicular cells isn’t the only promising method that avoids embryos; there have been impressive experiments in reprogramming ordinary body cells into stem cells by slipping certain genes into them. The new findings and the reprogrammed cells — which still have technical hurdles — “take some pressure off the stem cell issue,” said White House science adviser Jack Marburger [AP].
In the study, published in Nature [subscription required], researchers took biopsy samples from 22 men ranging in age from 17 to 81, then isolated the sperm-precursor cells and manipulated them chemically to form cells that closely resembled embryonic stem cells. While many are cheering this accomplishment, other scientists caution that it will take years of research to determine whether the manipulated cells can safely be used in medical treatments. Says stem cell expert Robin Lovell-Badge: “The same cells are also the likely origin of testicular tumours, so will the reprogrammed cells be entirely normal?” He added: “An answer to how these testis-derived pluripotent cells can be used will have to be left dangling a little longer” [BBC News].
Another open question is whether and how women might be able to benefit from the discovery. Skutella argues that at the very least, male germ stem cells could be used to treat women in much the same way that bone marrow is used in cancer therapy: by finding a closely related male donor and treating the patient with immunosuppressants, to prevent the body from rejecting the cells. But others are hopeful that similarly versatile stem cells can be obtained from the female reproductive tract [Technology Review].
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