It seems like an elementary idea: Use embryonic stem cells to study embryonic development.
For Brian Condie of the University of Georgia and Erhard Bieberich of the Medical College of Georgia, it's the key to understanding why, as the brain develops, some cells die and others survive.
Working with one of the 22 approved human embryonic stem cell lines or samples available, the researchers say they understand more about the basic biology of the controversial cells, which some advocates have touted as a cure for everything from Alzheimer's disease to spinal cord repair.
"Those fundamental mechanisms during embryonic development may very well be of significance also during adult disease processes," Dr. Bieberich said.
"Without knowing all the mechanisms, it's hard to develop pharmacological approaches to interfere with those disease processes. It's absolutely important to study the basic biology," he said.
Dr. Condie and Dr. Bieberich say they are focusing on a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death, which the body uses to rid itself of unwanted or worn-out cells. They are also looking at the tendency of some of the embryonic stem cells to form tumors.
Using a type of fat cell that is involved in signaling cells, the researchers had previously shown that it interacts with a protein in certain stem cells, which then triggers cell death.
The researchers found that the stem cells with that protein had another protein that was in cells that formed the tumors. Cells with a useful protein, called nestin, that go on to form brain cells were unaffected. It could be one way to help purify stem cell samples for transplant.
"This is just one more tool that can be added to those approaches that already exist," Dr. Condie said."
Their work demonstrates why many are excited, yet wary, about stem cells, said MCG researcher Carlos Isales, who is working to establish a major interdisciplinary program using adult stem cells for tissue regeneration with UGA, the Savannah River National Lab and the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
"One of the things that makes stem cells most attractive, which is their ability to proliferate and their ability to grow into different tissues, can also be their drawback," Dr. Isales said "The border between becoming a cancer cell and proliferating to replace damaged tissue is pretty thin. Anything that could help us narrow down the potential for doing harm can be very beneficial."
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While it was a hotly debated issue in the recent election, basic research on human embryonic stem cells is shedding light on how the brain develops.
BresaGen Inc., in Athens, Ga., holds three of the 22 cell lines available to federally funded researchers.
To qualify, a cell line must be from a donated embryo that was not viable for implantation and was created before President Bush announced his stem cell policy Aug. 9, 2001.