Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have, for the first time in history, derived authentic embryonic stem (ES) cells from rats. This breakthrough finding will enable scientists to create far more effective animal models for the study of a range of human diseases.

The research will be published in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Cell.

“This is a major development in stem cell research because we know that rats are much more closely related to humans than mice in many aspects of biology. The research direction of many labs around the world will change because of the availability of rat ES cells,” says Qi-Long Ying, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, researcher at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, and the study’s principal investigator.

The finding brings scientists much closer to creating “knockout” rats—animals that are genetically modified to lack one or more genes—for biomedical research. By observing what happens to animals when specific genes are removed, researchers can identify the function of the gene and whether it is linked to a specific disease.

“Without ES cells it is impossible to perform precise genetic modifications for the creation of the disease model we want,” he says. “The availability of rat ES cells will greatly facilitate the creation of rat models for the study of different human diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, addiction and autoimmune diseases.”

Ying, a native of China, notes that this breakthrough research occurred during 2008, the Chinese year of the rat.

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