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Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have revealed findings that some placental cells have many of the same characteristics of embryonic stem cells.
Like umbilical cords, the placenta is routinely discarded after a baby is born, and is a rich source of these cells. The cells are readily available and have been shown not to produce the tumors that are a major medical barrier to using embryo cells in direct treatments.
"We think it would be easier to get these to the clinic than [embryonic stem] cells," said Stephen Strom, an associate professor of pathology at the Pitt medical school.
"If we could develop efficient methods that would allow amnion-derived cells to differentiate into specific cell types, then placentas would no longer be relegated to the trashcan. Instead, we'd have a useful source of cells for transplantation and regenerative medicine," said Dr. Strom.
The cells, called amniotic epithelial cells, are not stem cells but have many of the same characteristics. They were found to differentiate into several different tissue types, including liver cells, neurons, heart cells, pancreatic cells with the potential to produce insulin, and glial cells which form part of the nervous system. Moreover, they do not share the same dangerous capacity for unlimited replication as do embryonic stem cells which may be related to the fact that they were found not to produce tumors in mice.
The news about placental cells is not entirely new.

In 2001, A three-year old boy, Tom Stretch, suffering from a disease of the white blood cells known as chronic granulomatous disease was successfully treated with stem cells harvested from the placenta of his baby sister, Hannah. Tom's disease would have been fatal and the only other possible treatment would have been a painful and difficult bone marrow transplant.

A local biotechnology company, Stemnion Inc., has already licensed the patent rights from Pitt in the hopes of using the cells for treating cirrhosis and diabetes and for wound healing.
[PITTSBURGH, August 8, 2005]
Read release from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: