- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

A team of scientists working with cells from mice have succeeded in growing sperm stem cells in the laboratory, which could provide a new source of adult stem cells for medical research.

In a report published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine described how they transplanted the sperm stem cells into infertile mice. The mice then were able to father offspring, which were genetically related to the donor mice.

“This advance opens up an exciting range of possible future research, from developing new treatments for male infertility to enhancing survival of endangered species,” said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD).

NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health, provided partial funding for the research.

Such sperm progenitor cells, officially known as spermatogonial stem cells, or SSCs, could become a valuable source of adult stem cells, which scientists are seeking as an alternative to embryonic stem cells for research of major diseases. Because embryos have to be destroyed to use their stem cells, many consider them morally unacceptable.

SSCs are found in animal testicles and can slowly renew themselves and later evolve into cells that make sperm. The new study identifies “soluble factors that promote proliferation of SSCs” outside the body.

“This research has enormous potential [for reproduction], as you have basically immortalized the male,” said Dr. Ralph Brinster, a veterinarian and reproductive biologist at the University of Pennsylvania and senior author of the study.

Researchers are hopeful that the new culturing technique for mouse SSCs, which they say is applicable for humans and other animals, could spark exploration into the use of SSCs as a source of more versatile adult stem cells to replace injured or diseased tissue.

Scientists say such replacement tissue might be used to help humans with spinal-cord injuries or life-threatening disorders such as Parkinson’s or heart disease.

“People feel it’s possible” that SSCs could be used in this way “because they are two steps down from embryonic stem cells, they resemble embryonic stem cells, they grow in clumps like embryonic stem cells, so it’s conceivable they could be one of the closest [alternatives] to embryonic stem cells,” Dr. Brinster said.

In contrast to SSCs, Dr. Brinster said, so-called hematoeic colonic stem cells, which are found in the blood and are the only other adult stem cells that can result in a full reconstruction of replacement tissue, cannot be grown in culture.

That might happen eventually, he said, “but they’ve been trying for the past 20 years.”

Even if SSCs do not emerge as a breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, Dr. Brinster said, they could play a crucial role both in increasing fertility and species survival.

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