Umbilical Cord Blood: The Future of Stem Cell Research?

April 6, 2006

Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently announced that they were able to largely reverse the effects of stroke in lab rats using stem cells found in human umbilical cord blood.

In the experiment, conducted by neurologist Walter Low and his colleagues, the transplanted stem cells took on properties of brain cells and seemed to spur the rats' brains to "rewire" themselves.

The researchers almost fully healed the rats 48 hours after the animals sustained brain damage. Typically doctors need to act within three hours to treat a human stroke patient successfully.

Cord-blood cell transplants are already becoming common as a therapy for diseases of the blood.

Now scientists like Low are finding that stem cells from umbilical cord blood—once thought capable only of turning into blood cells—may be able to grow into other kinds of cells as well.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature about the science of stem cells and the controversy surrounding them.)

Such advances are casting cord blood, previously regarded as medical waste left after childbirth, in a new light.

But while experts are optimistic about the future of cord blood as a source for new stem cell therapies, they disagree about how this potentially life-saving resource should be handled.

An Appealing Source of Stem Cells

It's not clear yet whether the therapy Low's team used on rats will ever be safe or effective in humans.

But many people with other life-threatening conditions have been healed with this easily collected source of stem cells.

Today doctors use cord blood cells to treat about 70 diseases, mostly anemias or cancers of the blood, such as leukemias and lymphomas.

Continued on Next Page >>


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