For the first time, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, together with scientists from collaborating institutions, have isolated adult stem cells from human intestinal tissue. The accomplishment provides a much-needed resource for scientists eager to uncover the true mechanisms of human stem cell biology. It also enables them to explore new tactics to treat inflammatory bowel disease or to ameliorate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, which often damage the gut. "Not having these cells to study has been a significant roadblock to research," said senior study author Scott T. Magness, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of medicine, biomedical engineering, and cell and molecular physiology at UNC. "Until now, we have not had the technology to isolate and study these stem cells – now we have to tools to start solving many of these problems." The UNC study, published online on April 4, 2013, in the journal Stem Cells, represents a leap forward for a field that for many years has had to resort to conducting experiments in cells from mice. While significant progress has been made using mouse models, differences in stem cell biology between mice and humans have kept researchers from investigating new therapeutics for human afflictions. "While the information we get from mice is good foundational mechanistic data to explain how this tissue works, there are some opportunities that we might not be able to pursue until we do similar experiments with human tissue," lead study co-author Adam D. Gracz, a graduate student in Dr. Magness's lab. Megan K. Fuller, M.D., was also co-lead author of the study.
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