Scientists Produce Stem Cells Of Endangered Species


In what BBC News Environmental Correspondent Richard Black has called, “a novel marriage of conservation and modern biology,” researchers have successfully produced stem cells from a pair of endangered species.

Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute, who detail their work in an advance online edition of the journal Nature Methods on September 4, 2011, started with normal skin cells from the a west African monkey called the drill and the northern white rhino.

They were able to use a “re-programming” process, Black said, which involves the use of “retroviruses and other tools of modern cell biology” in order to “bring the cells back to an earlier stage of their development.” In that state, the cells are said to be pluripotent, meaning that they can be turned into a wide variety of different cell types, the BBC News reporter added.

The team, including San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Director Oliver Ryder and Scripps Research Professor of Developmental Neurobiology Jeanne Loring, began their work approximately five years ago, the institute said in a September 4 press release.

The hope was that they would be able to use stem cells from endangered species to save lives, the same way that scientists have been able to use these cells to treat humans with a variety of conditions.

It was Ryder who suggested using the drill and the northern white rhinoceros.

The drill was selected because of its close genetic connection to humans, and because in captivity the animals often suffer from diabetes, which researchers are working to treat in humans using stem cell-based therapies.

The rhinoceros was chosen because it is one of the most endangered animal species in the world, and because of the vast genetic differences between it and primates like the drill.

“After a year of trial and error, the researchers found that the same genes that induce pluripotency in humans also worked for the drill and the rhino…The process is inefficient, meaning only a few stem cells are produced at a time, but that’s enough,” representatives from the Scripps Institute said in their press release.

“The scientists view their success as a first step toward greater advancements,” they added. “Besides the possibility of using stem cells as the basis for diabetes or other treatments, there is great potential for new reproductive technologies as the stem cell research field advances.”

Image 1: Northern White Rhinoceros; Photo credit: San Diego Zoo

Image 2: Drill primate; Photo credit: San Diego Zoo

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