Stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood may be an alternative to embryonic ones after all.

Think of embryonic stem cells as the perfect cover band: Give them a certain type of cell to mimic and they nail it, quickly pumping out more of the same. But they may not be the only cells that can pull off this copying act. A new study, published in the February issue of Stem Cells and Development, indicates that blood extracted from umbilical cords may be a promising alternative source of fresh stem cell lines.

Researchers at the Medical School of the University of Minnesota identified a new, more versatile type of umbilical cord stem cell that they hope will help repair damage to the brain as well as the blood.

“When we drew the cells, we were pleased to discover that they expressed the attributes of primitive stem cells,” said senior investigator Walter Low. “No one knew they were there before this particular report.”

Until now, scientists could only coax these cells to produce tissue types found in blood, such as platelets and white blood cells. This specificity limited the cells’ possible applications to only a handful of diseases, like leukemia and various types of anemia.

The new cell line was remarkably effective in treating strokes during tests on laboratory mice. Not only did the treatment reduce the size of brain injuries by half, but some of the cells even began taking on the characteristics of neural tissue-something the scientists weren’t expecting.

Low and his team found that the new type of cell also prompted existing nerve fibers to reestablish connections damaged by stroke, potentially helping victims recover faster and more completely.

“We knew stem cells were a source of cell replacement, but what we learned was that they also can cause the brain to rewire itself,” said Low. “Hopefully we can look at treatments in the acute phase shortly after a stroke, and even later, to help the brain in reorganizing.”

Dr. Paul Sanberg, a professor at the University of South Florida who has worked extensively with cord blood cells, praised the study for expanding the possible uses of these cells.

“This cell line may not be useful for current treatments,” Sanberg said via e-mail, “but it may be good for neurological disease and other diseases in the future.”

Although the primitive stem cells may eventually be used in a wider variety of treatments, Low says further studies are needed in order to compare their effectiveness with embryonic cells.

Originally published February 23, 2006

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