Tuesday September 19 6:39 PM ET
By Claudia Parsons
MILAN (Reuters) - Scientists in Italy said on Tuesday they had shown that certain cells from the brains of adult rats can be used to generate muscular tissue, a discovery that could have implications for transplant therapy.
The discovery concerns so-called stem cells, the body's "master cells" responsible for reproducing other types of cells.
The breakthrough comes at a time of controversy in the scientific world about the use of stem cells from embryos, which have great potential for transplant therapy because at an early stage they can be used to recreate any kind of cell.
If the research on rats translates to humans, it could allow doctors to use adult stem cells, skirting the ethical dilemma about using human embryos.
Luigi Vescovi, co-director of the San Raffaele hospital's Stem Cell Research Institute in Milan, said new research had proven what he called the "transdifferentiation capacity of somatic adult stem cells."
"It's a process by which a cell from a given tissue can give rise to a cell form of a different tissue, possibly even of a different embryonic origin," he told Reuters after presenting a paper to be published in science journal Nature Neuroscience.
Previously it was thought adult stem cells did not have the same capacity to produce cells in different parts of the body.
Critics say taking cells from embryos involves destroying a human life. The embryos used in current research are usually those left over from test-tube fertility treatment.
"The main therapeutic potential...is in the power of using healthy cells from one healthy part of the body to replace cells damaged or destroyed by an illness in another part of the body," the Institute said in a statement.
"With adult stem cells there would also be the possibility of auto-transplantation, eliminating all the problems of immunological compatibility and rejection," it said.
Vescovi said the most obvious possibility for therapeutic development was in the area of muscular dystrophy.
For example, doctors could eventually use brain stem cells to generate new muscular tissue for use elsewhere in the body.
However Vescovi emphasized the research was still at a very early stage and it had not yet been proven that what held true for rats would translate to humans.
It would require several years more research before patients could expect to benefit from the discovery.
Asked whether it could eventually phase out the need for organ donors,
Vescovi was cautious. "In terms of potential it could. The problem is we
have not demonstrated whatsoever that this is the case. There is no proof,"