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Tufts E-News --Fetal Cells Foster Research

Tufts E-News --Fetal Cells Foster ResearchInan unexpected finding, a Tufts researcher appears to have discovereda new – and much less controversial – source of stemcells.Boston

Boston [08.30.04] While embryonic stem cells have become embroiled in a growingdebate over their use, there may be a viable, and less controversial,source of the cells - which many believe promise to unlock a newera of medical advancements. According to new research by Tufts’Dr. Diana Bianchi, mothers may hold the key.

“[Accordingto Bianchi’s research], fetal cells lurking in a woman’sbody are the equivalent of a new source of stem cells and couldbe stimulated to treat diseases,” reported The New YorkTimes.

The discovery was unexpected,to say the least.

Bianchi– the chief of the division of medical genetics at Tufts-NewEngland Medical Center and professor at Tufts School of Medicine– made the discovery when she while trying to find a newmethod of prenatal diagnosis.

“Sheknew that a few fetal cells enter a woman’s blood duringpregnancy and hoped to extract those cells for prenatal diagnosis.That proved too difficult because there are so few fetal cellsin maternal blood,” reported the Times. “Butthen she discovered that the fetal cells do not disappear whena pregnancy ends.”

As it turns out, thefetal cells remain in a woman’s body for decades, if notindefinitely.

To trackthem down, Bianchi looked for male fetal cells in the tissuesand organs of women who have been pregnant with boys (they areeasier to spot than cells from female fetuses, since they havea Y chromosome that the mothers’ cells lack). She then madesure the cells’ DNA matches that of the sons or male fetuses.

“Ifwe can prove these are stem cells, and harvest them from the bloodor tissue of a woman who’s been pregnant, they could havetherapeutic potential for that woman, her children and perhapseven unrelated individuals,” Bianchi told The BostonGlobe.

They already appearto play an important role when the body repairs itself.

Researchhas shown that when a mother’s tissues or organs are injured,“fetal cells from her baby migrate there, divide and turninto the needed cell type, be it thyroid or liver, intestine orgallbladder, cervix or spleen,” according to the Times.

One womanBianchi studied had the viral infection, hepatitis C. Her liverrepaired itself, using the fetal cells that remained in her body,instead of the woman’s own cells.

“Herentire liver was repopulated with male cells,” Bianchi toldthe Times.

The presence and powerof these fetal cells make them very promising.

In reportingon other fronts in stem cell research, the Times noted, “[Doctors]want to use the cells instead of bone marrow transplants to treatpatients with genetic disorders like sickle cell anemia, and inborndisorders of the immune system,” reported the Times.

But thereis still much work to do. According to the Times, “[Bianchisaid] she must isolate them and prove they can turn into any ofthe body’s specialized cells,” in addition to finding“where the cells reside, or how, short of injury, to spurthem into action.”

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