Researchers at Scripps Research Institute have produced stem cells from endangered species and believe their success may be the beginning of a "stem cell zoo" that can save animals from 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.
"Stem cell technology provides some level of hope that they won't have to become extinct even though they have been completely eliminated from their habitat," the scientist added.
Stem cells have been used for human medical treatments and researchers hope the technology can be used to treat animal diabetes and aid in animal reproduction. Stem cells can morph into any type of cell in the body, a process called induced pluripotency.
Ryder’s team in 1972 started creating a "frozen zoo" that contains skin cells and other tissue samples from over 800 species. He eventually contacted Jeanne Loring Ph.D., a professor of developmental neurobiology at Scripps Research, about using the frozen zoo to generate and store stem cells.
The process involves a fair amount of trial and error. The team originally used genes from animals closely related to the target species but was unsuccessful. Ryder and Loring eventually discovered the same genes used to turn human cells pluripotent also worked for the drill monkey and northern white rhinoceros.
To create the stem cells, the researchers inserted those genes into the animals' skin cells. The process only produces a few stem cells at a time but it is enough to start the "stem cell zoo," according to researchers.
The study was published Sept. 4 in the journal Nature Methods.
The "stem cell zoo" breakthrough could potentially save dozens of animals from extinction, said researchers. However, the possibility of being able to reproduce endangered species from dead animal skins cells in the "frozen zoo" could potentially rehash controversy over stem cell research, which emerged during George W. Bush's presidency.
For years, stem cell research has presented an ethical dilemma because scientists use embryonic stem cells, which are derived from embryos that develop when eggs are fertilized. Often, scientists obtained stem cells from discarded embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics or they pulled cells from aborted fetuses.
Certain religious organizations and pro-life advocates argued that scientists were creating life only to destroy it in the name of science. Opponents maintained that the process scientists used violated the sanctity of life and was ultimately murder.
On the other hand, stem cells can be used to replace damaged or sick cells in a patient with an injury or degenerative disease. For instance, stem cells have been used to aid patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.