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Doctor calls for boost in cord blood stem cell research

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Embryonic stem cell research has yet to live up to all the hype. So far, human embryonic stem cells, or hESCs, haven't yielded any cures or therapies to treat diseases. That's not to say that hESC research isn't important, but some scientists think stem cell research needs a shift in focus, particularly to the promise of cord blood stem cells.

These cells are being used to treat patients with more than 75 diseases, including various cancers, traumatic brain injury, autism, pediatric stroke, cerebral palsy, Type 1 diabetes and blood, immune and metabolic disorders, said Dr. Mary Laughlin, a physician and expert in marrow and stem transplants at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Laughlin thinks the future of stem cell research depends on better preservation of stem cells collected from newborns after birth.

That's because scientists have found cord blood stem cells, which are taken from a newborn's umbilical cord, to be tremendously useful. They possess regenerative properties that can assist in organ repair and can be tapped for therapeutics in medicine.

"I think that a lot of what has been out in the press has really confused the American public," Laughlin told FierceBiotechResearch. "The emphasis has been on embryonic stem cells, but knowing the nature of those cells, it would be a very long time, if ever, until those cells will be able to be used in humans safely."

Of course, the major concern with transplanting embryonic stem cells into patients as therapies is their ability to form tumors, including teratoma, which are tumor-like formations containing tissues belonging to all three germ layers.

Cord blood cells don't pose the same risks, Laughlin said. They're considered "better" than adult stem cells because the cord blood cells are more immature and cause a lower frequency of host disease after transplantation. These young cells are also better suited to gene transfer, she said.

No doubt, advocates of hESC research might disagree with Laughlin, and still others believe that induced pluripotent stem cells are where it's at in studying regenerative therapies.

Therapies based on hESCs have moved slowly toward the clinic, without much activity to speak of besides Advanced Cell Technology's ($ACTC) early human trials of such treatments for eye diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health. But cord blood has been tried and true. NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information estimated that 25,000 cord blood transplants have been performed since the first transplant about 20 years ago.

Laughlin said cord blood is only saved from about 4% out of all births. "Those are very useful cells that are going in the trash," she said.

It could be decades before embryonic stem cell therapies come to fruition. Meantime, Laughlin says more research dollars--both from the private and public sources--should be going toward cord blood stem cell research. -- Emily Mullin (email | Twitter)