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Research dispels fears human stem cells contain cancer-causing mutations

EXETER (UK), December 2020 — A team of scientists from the University of Exeter’s flagship Living Systems Institute has shown that stem cells contain no cancer mutations when they are grown in their most primitive or naïve state. Their ground-breaking advances should help allay fears surrounding recent controversy about the genetic stability of human embryonic stem cells.

Human embryonic stem cells offer great promise for regenerative medicine because they can be turned into every type of cell in our bodies – such as neurons, heart, pancreatic and liver cells. As a result, they represent a significant potential source of cells that could be used to replace those lost through damage or disease.

A major concern, however, has been whether embryonic stem cells acquire cancer-causing mutations.

Recent studies indicated that human pluripotent stem cells had shown the potential for increased frequency of serious cancer-causing mutations.

However, the new research, led by Ge Guo, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the University of Exeter, has shown that there is no increased frequency of mutations in cancer-related genes found in these cells.

Analyzing RNA-sequencing data from human naïve pluripotent stem calls, the research team found that the actual incidences of cancer-causing mutations were closer to zero.

Dr. Guo said, “Our study corrects misinformation in the field and encourages us to continue exploring the potential of naïve stem cells.”

Austin Smith, Ph.D., co-author of the paper and director of the Living Systems Institute added, “I am delighted to see Dr. Guo launch her team in LSI by publishing these significant results.”

Dr. Guo’s research is focused on mammalian pluripotent stem cells and cell fate transition during early embryo development. Key research areas in the lab include understanding the developmental plasticity of human naïve stem cells; modelling early human embryo development ex vivo by reconstruction of embryo structures; and establishing pluripotent stem cells from various mammalian species and elucidation of shared and distinct gene regulatory features.

The current study is published in Cell Stem Cell.

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DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2020.11.014