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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Brazil will establish a national centre for stem cell research, and distribute stem cells around the country for research purposes, inching the debate on embryonic stem cell use in the country to a close.

The National Laboratory of Embryonic Stem Cells (Lance), which will open in July, was announced last month (25 January). It will be split between the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the University of São Paulo.

The announcement came as researchers from UFRJ announced they can produce induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are less controversial then embryonic stem cells because their production does not require the destruction of an embryo.

It is hoped Lance will be able to provide both iPS and embryonic stem cells to around 70 public and private laboratories in Brazil, and provide training for scientists to work in the field.

Embryonic stem cells have been the source of extensive controversy in Brazil, with critics fiercely contesting legislation to produce them. UFRJ researchers announced last June that they could produce embryonic stem cells, just months after legislation was passed (see Brazil says yes to stem cell research — again).

Research into embryonic cells is currently crucial but research on iPS cells could change this, says Wim Degrave, a geneticist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. "I think it's a matter of time until we won't need [embryonic cells] anymore."

Lance will receive around US$1.7 million from the Brazilian Innovation Agency, the Brazilian Development Bank and the Ministry of Health, a sign that the government is keen to invest in embryonic stem cells, says Degrave.

iPS cells are produced by transferring stem cell-associated genes into normal cells — in this case kidney cells — in the laboratory. This gives the cells capabilties similar to embryonic stem cells — they can differentiate into many types of tissue.

The aim is that one day cells could be taken from patients and turned into any kind of cell needed to treat disease.

But the coordinator of the UFRJ study, Stevens Rehen, warns that iPS cells are currently unsuitable for use in patients, and should only be used in the laboratory to test potential therapies.

"We expect to direct the stem cell research to specific health issues faced by the developing countries," he adds.

 

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