Researchers at the University of Tokyo have successfully cultured nerve and bone cells from special placental cells, a breakthrough that could lead to the treatment of incurable diseases such as bone cancer and Parkinson’s disease, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported Tuesday.

A team of scientists at a cell-processing section of the university’s Institute of Medical Science, led by professor Tsuneo Takahashi, discovered that mesenchymal stem cells, which develop into bone and nerve cells, exist in placental villi, tiny branchlike structures that supply oxygen and nutrition to a baby in the womb, according to the paper.

Mesenchymal stem cells are known to also exist in bone marrow.

Takahashi’s team cultivated placental mesenchymal stem cells by using a combination of medicines to encourage them to grow into nerve cells. After 24 hours of cultivation, about 30 percent of the stem cells became nerve cells, it said.

The scientists also detected calcium from another group of cultivated mesenchymal stem cells, which indicated the formation of bone cells, the report says.

The group will announce the breakthrough at a two-day meeting of the Japanese Society of Regenerative Medicine in Kyoto beginning Thursday.

As placentas are abandoned after serving their natural purpose, using mesenchymal stem cells from them for regenerative medicine would not raise the type of ethical issues that surround the use of embryonic stem cells.

Anyone can receive the cells provided the type of human leukocyte antigen available in reserve stocks matches that of the recipient, the newspaper said.

Mesenchymal stem cells can only develop into limited kinds of cells, including bone and nerve cells, while embryonic stem cells can develop into a wider variety of cells, including liver, pancreas and other internal organs, according to the paper.

The researchers will experiment on animals to develop methods of applying the finding in human medical treatment, it said.

“If we can secure the safety and effectiveness of the method, new kinds of medical materials will be provided to patients with various types of hard-to-cure diseases,” Takahashi was quoted as saying.

Hidehiko Saito, chief researcher at a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry team studying transplants and regenerative medicine using cord blood, lauded the finding by Takahashi’s group, saying, “It is a great step because it paves the way to the utilization of placentas, which are now a medical waste product,” according to the paper.

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