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J Cell Sci. 2003 Feb 15;116(Pt 4):599-603.

Plastic adult stem cells: will they graduate from the school of hard knocks?

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Histopathology Unit, Cancer Research (UK), London WC2A 3PX, UK.


Notwithstanding the fact that adult bone marrow cell engraftment to epithelial organs seems a somewhat uncommon event, there is no doubt it does occur, and under appropriate conditions of a strong and positive selection pressure these cells will expand clonally and make a significant contribution to tissue replacement. Likewise, bone-marrow-derived cells can be amplified in vitro and differentiated into a multitude of tissues. These in essence are the goals of regenerative medicine using any source of stem cells, be it embryonic or adult. Despite such irrefutable evidence of what is possible, a veritable chorus of detractors of adult stem cell plasticity has emerged, some doubting its very existence, motivated perhaps by more than a little self-interest. The issues that have led to this state of affairs have included the inability to reproduce certain widely quoted data, one case where the apparent transdifferentiation was due to contamination of the donor tissue with haematopoietic cells and, most notoriously, extrapolating from the behaviour of embryonic stem cells to suggest that adult bone marrow cells simply fuse with other cells and adopt their phenotype. While these issues need resolving, slamming this whole new field because not everything is crystal clear is not good science. The fact that a phenomenon is quite rare in no way mitigates against its very existence: asteroid collisions with the Earth are rare, but try telling the dinosaurs they do not occur! When such events do occur (transdifferentiation or collision), they certainly can make an impact.

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