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Are rats the future of stem cell therapies?

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Old 01.21.09, 07:30 PM
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Are rats the future of stem cell therapies?

There's new research that indicates that it may be possible to capture basic embryonic stem cells from any mammal. And if that's the case, the political, moral, and religious firestorm built about around the use of these vital, life-saving resources might finally peter out.

It's hoped that this new formula will enable scientists to ultimately harvest rat stem cells, and then use those cells to mimic human diseases in genetically altered rats. And before you shudder in disgust about using rat anything in human research, remember that rats are incredibly similar to humans physiologically, at least (and in other ways, too, in the case of many politicians). Rats are often used to test drugs because their physical reactions are often similar to that of people.

What makes stem cells unique is that they are not specialized; this means that they are the root or "stem" form of the cell, and can grow and develop to become ANY type of cell in your body. A stem cell could be developed into heart tissue, liver tissue - even brain tissue.

This doesn't mean that rat stem cells will be employed to curing human diseases directly you're not about to have a doctor offering to inject you with a hypodermic needle full of rat stem cells. The goal here is to create rats that are even more similar to humans than rats already are, in order to create more accurate test subjects.

Believe it or not, this is not exactly a new development: as long ago as 1981, researchers have been genetically altering the embryonic cells of mice in order to "build" disease models for study. But the cells of rats and other animals have been elusive, and scientists have had no luck isolating them until now.

This is critical because of the big flap over the use of more easily attained human embryonic stem cell lines. The ethical issues forever swirling around these cells have made them practically useless from a research standpoint. So any controversy-free avenue to more stem cells is critical.

The new study was done by teams of researchers working in both Scotland and the U.S., and lead author Qi-Long Ying of the University of Southern California says "the availability of true rat embryonic stem cells provides an opportunity to adapt the technology developed in the mouse to the rat."

While this new study can lead to more accurate drug testing, it may not be as controversy free as I'm suggesting: after all, I'm sure those kooks at PETA will have something to say about scientists tinkering with the stem cells of those animals. Hopefully that particular "firestorm" will be ignored as a tempest in a teapot.

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William Campbell Douglass II, M.D.
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