Scientists Found Cancer-Causing DNA in Stem Cells Given to Patients

These unlucky people were enrolled in clinical trials, not clients at shady clinics.

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Apr 28 2017, 4:46pm

For decades, stem cells have offered rich potential, promising an age of "regenerative medicine." They're being used to in early-stage treatment for Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, hearing loss, arthritis, and paralysis, among others, with new applications (impotence?) appearing seemingly all the time. They're generally hailed as a motherlode for medical treatment, even as some unregulated clinics cross the line from research into dangerous hype.

But a recent letter in the journal Nature shows that some of the stem cell lines used in these therapies have been found to contain cancer-causing mutations. That raises the concern that patients treated with the cells could face a real risk of developing cancer—though that hasn't happened so far.

To reach that conclusion, Harvard scientists examined 140 stem cell lines, most of which were registered with the National Institutes of Health; each line is a collection of identical stem cells that's reproduced and provided to researchers. They performed DNA sequencing and found that five lines had cells with a cancer-causing mutation, specifically in the TP53 gene. Of those five, at least two have been used in clinical trials of experimental treatments. It's not known how many people received them.

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