Hailed as a ground-breaking study, scientists in Pittsburgh say they’ve discovered that adult stem cells have the same ability as embryonic stem cells to multiply.

The previously unknown characteristic indicates post-natal stem cells may play an important therapeutic role, according to the researchers at the city’s Children’s Hospital.

In the heated national debate, embryonic stem cells — regarded as destruction of human life by opponents — have been touted as having a greater capacity than adult cells to multiply, making them more desirable to research as a potential treatment, noted Johnny Huard, director of the hospital’s Growth and Development Laboratory.

“Scientists have typically believed that adult or post-natal stem cells grow old and die much sooner than embryonic stem cells, but this study demonstrates that is not the case,” said Huard, the senior author of the study.

The Bush administration has been criticized for using moral arguments to limit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Proponents of embryonic stem-cell research argue the cells are desirable to researchers because they are more versatile, holding the potential to produce virtually any specialized type of cell.

California voters have approved $3 billion in state funds for stem-cell studies, including embryonic research.

Nevertheless, the most successful therapies and experiments to date have involved cells that require no use of embryos.

“The entire world is closely following the advances in stem-cell research, and everyone is interested in the potential of stem cells to treat everything from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease,” Huard said. “But there are also many ethical concerns surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, concerns that you don’t have with post-natal or adult stem cells.”

Huard said he believes the study should “erase doubts scientists may have had about the potential effectiveness of post-natal stem cells.”

The research showed adult cells were able to match the the capacity of embryonic cells to live through more than 200 population doublings — a method of measuring the age of a population of cells.

Bridget Deasy, a scientist in Huard’s laboratory, found the post-natal cells were able to undergo population doublings while maintaining their ability to regenerate muscle in an animal model, a key finding indicating they could maintain their treatment potential.

The findings are published in the July 1 issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell, published by the American Society for Cell Biology.

The paper is under consideration for Molecular Biology of Cell paper of the year.

The researchers also found that, unlike embryonic stem cells, rejection by the recipient’s immune system is not an issue with adult stem cells.

Huard, one of the world’s top cell biologists, is searching for a cure for Duchene muscular dystrophy and researching the use of stem cells to repair injured muscle following sports-related injuries, as well as to treat cardiac, joint and bone injuries.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported the announcement of research indicating that human stem cells taken from a patient’s bone marrow may help in treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurologic diseases,

At a meeting in Philadelphia Wednesday, Kiminobu Sugaya of the Chicago biotechnology firm NewNeural LLC said he has processed human stem cells into nerve cells and implanted them in the brains of aged, demented rats, improving their memories.

Related stories:

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Reeve doubted embryonic stem-cell research

Scientists in stem-cell cover-up

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