PARIS — Scientists said Sunday they had produced the first stemcells from endangered species, a breakthrough that could potentially save dozens of animals teetering on the brink of extinction.
"The best way to manage extinction is to preserve species and habitats but that is not always working," Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo and co-leader of the study, said in a statement.
"Stemcell technology provides some level of hope that they won't have to become extinct even though they have been completely eliminated from their habitat."
That is the case for the northern white rhinoceros, one of the first two animals included in Ryder's new "stemcell zoo."
Only seven specimens remain in existence, all in captivity and two in San Diego.
The researchers also isolated stemcells from a critically threatened primate called a drill, genetically a close cousin to humans.
In captivity, drills often suffer from diabetes, a disease scientists are seeking to treat in humans using stemcell-based therapies.
Ryder's team had already collected skin cells and other tissue samples from more than 800 species -- stored in a "Frozen Zoo" -- by 2006.
That is when he contacted Jeanne Loring, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute in nearby La Jolla and the study's other lead researcher, about the possibility of using the bank to generate and store stemcells.
At the time, scientists seeking to use stemcells to cure human disease had not yet found a reliable technique for turning normal adult cells into stemcells that can give rise to nearly any type of tissue or cell in the body.
Today, however, this process -- called induced pluripotency -- is routinely achieved by inserting certain genes into normal cells.
At first, Ryder and Loring tried to use genes from animals closely related to the target species in order to trigger the transformation, but the experiments failed.
Through trial and error, however, they discovered to their amazement that the same genes that induce pluripotency in humans also worked for the drill and the rhino.
The process in inefficient, only producing a few stemcells at a time, according to the study, published in Nature Methods. But it was still enough to start the "stemcell zoo".
Perhaps the greatest potential for helping endangered species -- beyond disease treatment -- is new reproductive stategies.
If adult stemcells can become a sperm or egg cell, for example, scientists could then use skin cells from long-dead animals in the Frozen Zoo to produce the male and female starter kit for new life.
Induced sperm cells could be combined with the eggs from living animals through in vitro fertilisation.
Alternatively, both eggs and sperm might be generated from stemcells, with the resulting embryos implanted in live host animals, a process the researchers said would likely be much more reliable that cloning techniques.
"I think that work would be a lot easier ethically with endangered species than with humans," Loring said in a statement.
"I suspect some people working in this area would love to have our cells for experiments."
Such techniques would also help boost genetic diversity by reaching beyond the small number of living individuals of a dwindling species, she explained.
Even if the remaining northern white rhinos reproduced -- which hasn't happened in many years -- the tiny gene pool could easily lead to unhealthy animals.
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