New Source of Stem Cells Discovered in Umbilical Cord

By Liz Townsend

Researchers at Kansas State University have discovered that special tissue found in umbilical cords may be a rich source of stem cells. Results of a study published in the online version of the journal Stem Cells indicate that the tissue known as "Wharton's jelly" can be differentiated into various types of cells, which could make the unethical use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary.

"One of the really exciting things is that these are not embryonic stem cells," study co-author Mark Weiss, associate professor of anatomy and physiology, told the Kansas State Collegian. "They are postnatal - - no fetuses were harmed."

Wharton's jelly, named after British physician Thomas Wharton who discovered it in the mid-1600s, protects blood vessels in the umbilical cord and gives the cord "resiliency and pliability," according to AScribe Newswire. The Kansas State researchers suggest that primitive stem cells may settle in the umbilical cord as the embryo develops.

"Our results show that Wharton's jelly cells are easily attainable and can be expanded in vitro, maintained in culture, and induced to differentiate into neural cells," the report states. "They are a potential source of multipotent stem cells that may serve many therapeutic and biotechnological roles."

The researchers began by testing umbilical cord cells from pigs. The cells were placed in culture and coaxed to propagate, or grow. The Wharton's jelly cells successfully grew over the course of a year, and the researchers found that the cells changed into neurons, which is a primary indication they can be used in treating diseases, the Collegian reported.

Encouraged by the success with animal cells, the Kansas State team then tried the same experiments on human Wharton's jelly cells. The tests again showed that the cells propagated, this time for eight months, and showed evidence that they differentiated into neurons as well, according to AScribe Newswire.

"We can get large numbers of cells - - it's almost an inexhaustible source. They can also be obtained noninvasively, whereas bone marrow requires a biopsy," study co-author Deryl Troyer, professor of anatomy and physiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, told the Collegian. "The cells also survive for a long period of time in culture."

The researchers are continuing to study Wharton's jelly cells to find out more about their potential for disease treatment. "Work is under way to characterize the cell types present in Wharton's jelly and to determine whether clonal lines of Wharton's jelly cells can be established that maintain their capacity to proliferate and to differentiate into neural cells as well as other tissue types," the report states.

"It's one of the most exciting things that has happened at K-State," Troyer told the Collegian. "It's very interesting that something that was previously just discarded could be put to medical use."