Published on 04/12/2001

Company finds stem cell source in placentas

By Anne Harding

NEW YORK, Apr 12 (Reuters Health) - A New Jersey company has announced it can harvest stem cells from a controversy-free source: the human placenta.

Stem cells are immature cells that can mature, or differentiate, into several different types of tissue. Dozens of researchers are investigating their potential for treating a number of diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and stroke. But ethical concerns and technical difficulties have hampered stem cell research.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for a ban of government funding of research on stem cells taken from embryos and aborted fetuses. Abortion opponents have also urged the Bush administration to ban this research. For this reason, a hunt for alternate stem cell sources is under way. While stem cells can be harvested from adults, this procedure is cumbersome and yields only a small supply.

Anthrogenesis Corp. of Cedar Knolls announced April 11 in a press release that it has been able to collect 10 times as many cells from a single post-birth placenta as have been gathered from other sources. The 3-year-old company has a proprietary technology for removing blood from the placenta, sustaining the organ in the laboratory, and then recovering the cells from the placenta tissue several hours or days later.

The placenta contains blood vessels that deliver nutrition and oxygen from mother to fetus. Once a child is born, the woman will then deliver the placenta, which is usually discarded.

The placenta-derived cells have the same key cell surface molecules as other stem cells used in research, the company's chief scientific officer, Dr. Robert J. Hariri, told Reuters Health. Hariri invented the proprietary technology.

While the company has not yet published any information on the stem cells, he said, it expects to do so within "a few months." The company issued a press release rather than waiting to publish its research, he said, because of the great need for alternate stem cell sources. Also, the company is looking for collaborators who could help speed up the research and development process.

Hariri and his colleagues are now engaged in determining the cells' potential for differentiation, which will be the true test of their usefulness. Anthrogenesis is working with other companies to test the cells for treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, some cancers, and for other types of regenerative medicine, Hariri said.

ALS occurs when the motor neurons of the body degenerate, leading to paralysis, wasting and eventual death. There is no treatment or cure for the disease.

"We will be working with him to get the research done," said James A. Heywood, executive director of the ALS Therapy Development Foundation in Newton, Massachusetts.

The two approaches to using stem cells in treating ALS would be infusing the cells into the fluid surrounding the spine, or into the spine directly. But, Heywood noted, the process of spinal cord damage would have to be halted before stem cells could be administered.

"There are a lot of stem cell technologies," Heywood said. "I like this one in particular."