Scientists at Australia's Griffith University have engineered a breakthrough in the field of adult stem cell research that's so significant, say experts, that it could render the debate over embryonic stem cell research moot.
The results of the four year research project showed that olfactory stem cells can be turned into heart cells, brain cells, nerve cells, indeed almost any kind of cell in the body, without the problems of rejection or tumors forming, a common side effect with embryonic stem cells.
The poorly funded Griffith University team - which conducted its research with a mere $200,000 in grants - appears to have found a direct and non-controversial alternative to the use of stem cells derived from leftover embryos created during fertility treatment, reported the Australian newspaper.
"Our experiments have shown adult stem cells isolated from the olfactory mucosa have the ability to develop into many different cell types if they are given the right chemical or cellular environment," research team leader Alan Mackay-Sim told the paper.
Mackay-Sim's team of scientists managed to grow nerve cells, glial cells, liver cells, heart cells, muscle cells from cells harvested from the human nose.
The breakthrough, first announced two months ago, has been largely ignored by the U.S. media, which has focused on embryonic stem cell research as the only option to cure debilitating ailments like Hodgkin's, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
As a result of the lopsided press coverage, California voters passed $6 billion referendum to fund embryonic stem cell research last November, with similar programs proposed around the U.S. - though embryonic stem cell research has yet to show any significant medical progress.
In Australia, however, the medical community is excited over Mackay-Sim's adult stem cell breakthrough.
Brisbane neurologist Peter Silburn, a member of Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council, said the fact that researchers have been able to take adult stem cells from patients with Parkinson's disease and turn them into neurones shows great promise.
"We can now learn about the condition in ways we never could before," Silburn told the Australian.
Unlike embryonic stem cells, which reportedly can trigger tumors in one in five cases at the point of injection, adult stem cells grow in a controlled fashion and don't revert to their original tissue form.
Another significant benefit: because adult stem cells can be harvested from the patient, there's no risk of the body rejecting them as alien, eliminating the need for immune system-suppressing drugs.
Still, two months after Australia's adult stem cell breakthrough was first announced, it's played little or no role in the ongoing U.S. debate over government funding for embryonic stem cell research.
"One of the complicating factors is that a lot of people have a lot of money tied up in embryonic stem cells," noted Australia's Catholic Archbishop George Pell, who helped secure funding for the Mackay-Sim project.