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Tricky Stem Cells

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation last week on their work using stem cells to treat genetic disorders in utero, reports Technology Review's Lauren Gravitz. Working with mice, the researchers found that transplanting a mother's stem cells into the fetus she carries populates the fetus's bone marrow with healthy cells, and helps the baby avoid immune rejection of a bone marrow transplant once it is born. If the findings were to be replicated in humans, Gravitz says, physicians could eventually use the technique to prepare the fetus for a bone-marrow transplant from the mother after birth to treat blood disorders like sickle cell anemia. Currently, bone-marrow transplants require long-term treatment with immunosuppressants. "Scientists theorize that bone-marrow transplants performed when a fetus is still developing would override this problem," Gravitz says. "They suspect that the fetus's immature immune system could be tricked into adopting those foreign cells and recognizing them as its own." The researchers are planning to continue their work in larger mammals and nonhuman primates.