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Scientists brew up pure nerve stem cells

UK and Italian team hails breakthrough

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Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have announced the successful creation - in conjunction with the University of Milan - of nerve stems cells, hailing the breakthrough as a great leap towards possible treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The initial application for the cells will be to test the effectiveness of new medicines. Lead boffin professor Austin Smith told the BBC: "We're already talking with the bio-technology and bio-pharmaceutical companies about taking these cells into screening systems for new drugs. Hopefully that will come to pass within two to three years."

The long-term aim, however, is to use the cells for transplantation, although Smith admitted: "In terms of the possibility of using the cells for transplantation, that's a much more difficult and longer term thing and I think there we're talking more of the five to ten year range."

In creating the stem cells, the Edinburgh and Milan scientists overcame the tricky problem of not ending up with dish full of mixed stem and specialized cells. As the uni's blurb explains: "Until now, scientists had not been able to sustain the ability of neural stem cells to produce copies of themselves when grown in a dish. This meant that the population of cells in the dish would always become mixed, with only a few stem cells and many more specialized cells. By changing the growth conditions for the cells, the Edinburgh and Milan labs have for the first time established pure stem cell divisions, thus avoiding the unwanted differentiated cells."

Milan team member Luciano Conti concludes: "We applied techniques developed to control the behaviour of embryonic stem cells to our neural stem cells. The knowledge we already have about embryonic stem cells helped us to understand and control these more specialized stem cells." ®

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