Stem cell breakthroughs announced by UK and South Korea

May 23, 2005

Brussels, 20 May 2005

Breakthroughs in stem cell research have been announced by the UK and South Korea. Scientists say that both advances represent major steps towards cell-based therapy for patients suffering from a number of diseases.

Researchers from the UK's Newcastle University have succeeded in cloning Europe's first human embryo. The team took surplus eggs from 11 women undergoing IVF treatment, removed their genetic material and replaced it with DNA from embryonic stem cells. While controversial, many scientists believe that such techniques can be used to create cloned embryos, from which stem cells can be used to treat diseases. This is achievable as stem cells have the ability to develop into virtually any tissue in the body, and could therefore be used to replaced damaged cells in conditions such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

Meanwhile in South Korea, scientists say they have created stem cells tailored to match individual human beings for the first time. The researchers from Seoul National University took skin cells from patients suffering from spinal cord injuries or a genetic disorder and put the genetic material obtained into a donated egg. The results are important. As the stem cells were cloned from the patients' own skin cells, they are unlikely to be rejected by the patient if used in any future therapy.

In Newcastle, the team was able to create three very early stage embryos, and one of them developed into a blastocyst. The clone only survived for five days however, so the scientists were unable to extract stem cells from it. The breakthrough is significant nonetheless, and came about through an experiment done to investigate whether eggs collected from women undergoing IVF treatment would be healthy enough to produce clones.

The team has been given permission to create more clones, and will focus on patients with Type 1 diabetes. The stem cells taken from diabetes sufferers will enable researchers to study the very early roots of the disease.

Understanding of stem cells and the accompanying ability to manipulate them has recently been progressing rapidly. In January of this year, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had converted stem cells into spinal nerve cells - a possible springboard on the way to curing motor neurone disease. This was followed in February by an announcement from the University of Illinois in Chicago that stem cells could be used to grow breast implants for cosmetic surgery, and then the publication of a paper from the University of California claiming that rats had regained their ability to walk after having spinal cord injuries treated with human embryonic stem cells.

Progress in Europe has been less striking, partly because cloning has been prohibited or placed under stringent restrictions in several countries. While reproductive cloning is illegal in the UK, licences to clone human embryos in order to create stem cells were awarded to two groups for the first time in 2004. The Newcastle group is one of the licence holders.

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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