Embryonic stem (ES) cell based therapy carries great potential in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. However, before clinical application is realized, the safety, efficacy and feasibility of this therapeutic approach must be established in animal models. The rhesus macaque is physiologically and phylogenetically similar to the human, and therefore, is a clinically relevant animal model for biomedical research, especially that focused on neurodegenerative conditions. Undifferentiated monkey ES cells can be maintained in a pluripotent state for many passages, as characterized by a collective repertoire of markers representing embryonic cell surface molecules, enzymes and transcriptional factors. They can also be differentiated into lineage-specific phenotypes of all three embryonic germ layers by epigenetic protocols. For cell-based therapy, however, the quality of ES cells and their progeny must be ensured during the process of ES cell propagation and differentiation. While only a limited number of primate ES cell lines have been studied, it is likely that substantial inter-line variability exists. This implies that diverse ES cell lines may differ in developmental stages, lineage commitment, karyotypic normalcy, gene expression, or differentiation potential. These variables, inherited genetically and/or induced epigenetically, carry obvious complications to therapeutic applications. Our laboratory has characterized and isolated rhesus monkey ES cell lines from in vitro produced blastocysts. All tested cell lines carry the potential to form pluripotent embryoid bodies and nestin-positive progenitor cells. These ES cell progeny can be differentiated into phenotypes representing the endodermal, mesodermal and ectodermal lineages. This review article describes the derivation of monkey ES cell lines, characterization of the undifferentiated phenotype, and their differentiation into lineage-specific, particularly neural, phenotypes. The promises and limitations of primate ES cell-based therapy are also discussed.

June 23, 2004