Stem Cells’ Next Use: Fighting Extinction

By JONATHAN PARKINSON, VoiceofSandiego.org

It’s a lonely world for the two northern white rhinos at Escondido’s Wild Animal Park. They are among less than a dozen of their kind left on Earth.

Conservationists work constantly through habitat protection and other means to save these and other endangered species. And now they are adding a new technology to their list of possible solutions to extinction — stem cells.

Scientists at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation are working on two separate projects that employ some of the same stem cell breakthroughs that might someday treat disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in humans.

“This is a very preliminary experiment,” said Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the Institute for Conservation Research. “We want to see if the process that’s worked on human cells will work in animals.”

Ryder’s group wants to reprogram adult cells from drill monkeys and northern white rhinos into stem cells. Using a type of virus called a retrovirus, scientists introduce genes into the DNA of an adult cell that cause it to behave like an embryonic stem cell, a versatile cell that can divide to form any other cell type in the body.

The Zoo researchers are working in collaboration with world-renowned stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring and her lab at the Scripps Research Institute.

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