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[BEIJING] Chinese scientists have been given approval to conduct the country's first clinical trial using human stem cells, the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Health announced on Tuesday (1 February).

Although the number of scientists working in stem cell research worldwide is growing, most studies are still at the pre-clinical stage.

The researchers, at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, are investigating the use of stem cells to treat leukaemia, a form of cancer affecting blood cells.

Stem cells are 'unprogrammed' cells in the human body, which have the ability to develop into bone, muscle, or other types of specialised cells. Scientists are trying to harness this capability for use in transplantation and to treat diseases.

The researchers have already tested the method by injecting stem cells into rats, pigs and monkeys with leukaemia. The results showed that the stem cells boosted production of blood cells — a process that takes place in the bone marrow — and reduced the likelihood of leukaemia returning by more than 60 per cent following bone marrow transplantation.

Zheng Bin, a scientist on the project, told SciDev.Net that the results suggest the technique could be used to help human leukaemia patients. He added that the treatment might also reduce the chances of leukaemia patients rejecting transplanted marrow by boosting the ability of the patients' own marrow cells to tolerate it.

The first phase of clinical trials, which will test the safety of the treatment on 30 healthy people, will start next month and last for three months. The participants will receive stem cells taken from the marrow of healthy adults.

If the phase I trial is successful, the second stage — tests in leukaemia patients — is likely to be launched this year, said Zheng.

Scientists at the academy are also investigating the use of stem cell therapies for other conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and liver failure.

Stem cells can be used for reproductive purposes as well as therapeutic ones. Although legislation on the use of stem cells has yet to be finalised, most scientists and governments are opposed to reproductive techniques. Zheng said that one of the project's ethical guidelines was to uphold the right of marrow donors to be informed about the type of stem cell therapy their donation was to be used for.

Zhang Mu, chief of the biodrug section at the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development, said at a news conference this week that the team's work is a major breakthrough, and that in stem cell research China is keeping up with developed countries.

The Chinese government has been pushing for more research into stem cells. Its national technology programme — called the '863 programme' — invested 40 million yuan (US$4.8 million) in stem cell research between 2001 and 2005.

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