Scientists have proven that a functional prostate gland can be grown from a single adult stem cell. The glands were grown in mice but the research, by scientists at Genentech in San Francisco, may aid the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer in humans. It is the second instance of an entire organ being grown from a single stem cell; the first came in 2006, when scientists grew mammary glands in mice.
The team first found a marker, a protein, that would differentiate prostate stem cells from other cells in the prostate. This marker, C-117, can also be found in the human prostate, they said [Reuters]
. Using the new C-117 marker and three previously known markers, the scientists identified stem cells in the prostate of baby mice and transplanted them onto the kidneys of adult mice. Three months later, the researchers removed the kidneys and analyzed the fate of the grafted cells. Of the 97 single-cell transplants, 14 had grown into fully functioning prostates--complete with multiple cell types, characteristic branching structures, and prostate-specific proteins [Technology Review].
Scientists have long suspected that adult stem cells could be found in the prostate and many think there are close ties between stem cells and cancer cells. Currently, prostate cancer is diagnosed in 679,000 men every year, a third of whom die from it.
By homing in on the stem cells, researchers can now examine how this cell population helps regulate growth in the prostate, says Leisa Johnson ... co-author of the study appearing in Nature[subscription required]. Comparing the markers on these stem cells with those on the surfaces of cancer cells, Johnson adds, will also help scientists determine if stem cells contribute to prostate malignancies [Scientific American].
The research raises the possibility that men who have lost their prostates to cancer could grow new ones. However, scientists say there would be little demand for such regeneration procedures since prostate cancer mostly affects men over age 65, most of whom do not want more children.
Stem cell expert Malcolm Alison commented, "The prostate gland provides a life-supportive fluid for sperm, but whether you need to regenerate a new prostate is a moot point, since the prostate simply gives the aging male population serious medical problems"[Reuters].
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