First human stem cells engineered

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First human stem cells engineered 

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists say they have, for the first time, genetically manipulated human stem cells -- a first step towards making the body's so-called master cells into a useful tool.

Using the method that made the laboratory mouse so valuable to genetic researchers, the team at the University of Wisconsin deleted a disease gene from human embryonic stem cells.

They now have a way to help control how the cells develop, so they can direct them to become brain tissue, or perhaps heart cells or pancreatic cells, said Dr. Thomas Zwaka, who conducted the study with stem cell expert American James Thomson.

"It allows us to manipulate every part of the human genome that we want," Zwaka, a German-born medical doctor and molecular biologist, said in a telephone interview on Sunday.

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Thomson's lab was the first in the world to produce human embryonic stem cells. They are taken from very early embryos left over from couples' attempts to have test-tube babies at fertility clinics.

Extracted when the fertilised egg has divided just a few times, each cell still "remembers" how to become any kind of cell in the body. Once they get older, cells are programmed and cannot easily change direction in development.

The hope is that these cells can be used to replace the brain cells destroyed in Parkinson's disease, the cells that die in type-I diabetes or ...

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