Embryos that once had to be thrown away are now contributing to the understanding of how genetic diseases progress and the development of new treatments.
On Monday, University researchers announced that they have successfully created the state’s first disease-specific human embryonic stem cell lines. The stem cells contain the genes responsible for the genetic disorders hemophilia B, which is responsible for insufficient blood clotting, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which causes muscle degeneration.
“These stem cell lines are the first of their kind,” said Gary Smith, a co-director of the University’s Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies, where the research is being conducted.
No other researchers have created lines for these particular diseases, Smith said. The main goal of the University researchers’ current project is to derive unique embryonic stem cell lines and to provide scientists across the country with new ways of studying the formation of specific diseases to devise cures for them.
“By better understanding the disease, you’re better able to treat the disease,” Smith said.
Sue O’Shea, the consortium’s co-director, explained that embryonic stem cells offer a model to study the development of a genetic disease. By studying embryonic stem cells, researchers can track the development of abnormal cells and examine how they affect the growth and health of the cell, she said.
The consortium’s future plans include the study of stem cell lines for other diseases such as Huntington’s disease and Rett syndrome, Smith said.
The creation of the lines was aided by a partnership between the University and Genesis Genetics of Detroit, a company that tests days-old embryos for genetic diseases, according to a University press release issued Monday.
O’Shea described how the embryonic stem cells are the result of in vitro fertilization, a process available to couples who have a history of genetic disease that allows them to have an embryo grown in a culture dish and tested for genetic disease. If the embryo tests positive for a genetic disease, O’Shea explained, the embryo will not be used for reproduction, and couples have the choice to freeze it, throw it out or donate it to scientific research.
Before Michigan voters passed a ballot initiative in 2008, University researchers could not legally use donated human embryos for research purposes. Since the proposal’s passage, couples can choose to donate their embryos, instead of them being automatically discarded.
According to O’Shea, other universities have been making embryonic stem cell lines while Michigan laws prohibited the practice. She said she hopes to make an impact on the diseases that have not been studied by other universities.
According to Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, the University’s project is a step in the right direction. The coalition is a national group that works to discover improved treatments for diseases.
“It’s an important advance,” Tipton said. “People have known that you can make stem cell lines with specific disorders, and this expands that work with some new conditions.”