Human skin 'good food' for stem cells
Unlike stem cells that are 'fed' on animal cells, those nourished with adult skin cells can be used safely for human trials, says local expert

By Chang Ai-Lien

WHEN a woman agrees to donate an excess embryo left over from fertility treatment for stem cell research, she could donate a tiny piece of skin as well, said stem cell expert Ariff Bongso.

His latest findings indicate that such cells are a good form of 'food' for stem cell lines or factories, making them safe for use in future tests on people.

'When we get a tiny skin sample, we can grow the skin cells in the lab, and these form a good feeder for stem cells,' said Professor Bongso, scientific director of the assisted reproductive technology and andrology programme at the National University Hospital and research professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) obstetrics and gynaecology department.

Embryonic stem cells have opened up a hot new field of research because they have the ability to morph into any cell that an ailing body needs.

But currently, cell lines, including those developed by Singapore-based ES Cell International and a handful of other companies worldwide, are nourished with animal cells.

This means they cannot be used in trials involving people because of the danger of transmitting animal diseases.

Prof Bongso, whose team was the first in the world to succeed in growing 'animal nutrient-free' stem cells last year, found that adult skin cells were almost as effective for growing stem cells as foetal muscle and skin cells.

Unlike material taken from aborted foetuses, the use of adult skin cells is not likely to be rejected on ethical grounds.

Elaborating on his team's latest findings during a break at the international stem cell conference here yesterday, he added: 'Another plus is that the mother would have been screened for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B when she gives up the embryo for research, so we would not have to screen the skin sample again.'

Professor Lee Eng Hin, head of the NUS division of graduate medical studies, added: 'This work is very exciting because you need cell lines to be completely animal-free if research is to be taken from the bench to the bedside.'

The research was published last month in the journal Stem Cells.

ES Cell is now working on creating colonies of the unprogrammed cells that can be used safely for trials in patients.

The three-day stem cell conference, which ends tomorrow, has attracted more than 500 researchers from all over the world, including top names in the field.

Yesterday's opening lecture was given by Professor Douglas Melton of Harvard University, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who spoke about how his team had created its own cell lines for research.

Although 78 cell lines have been approved by the United States National Institutes of Health for research, scientists have found that many of these so-called 'presidential lines' are not available, or are very difficult to grow or maintain.

Commenting on the conference, Sir George Radda, Oxford University's Emeritus Professor of Molecular Cardiology, said that Singapore was in a leading position in stem cell research, along with other front runners such as Britain.

'The restrictions in other countries give Singapore the opportunity to establish a niche, and stem cell research could well become its biggest strength,' he said.

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