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Science in the News

Recent Work Published in the Journal Nature Raises a Potential Safety Concern Regarding Cultured Human Embryonic Stem Cells to Treat Disease

May 02, 2017 Pluripotent stem cells are cells that are not committed to a particular path of development, but can be stimulated to differentiate into cells with specialized functions. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a registry of human embryonic stem cell lines (hES); there are also natural repositories of stem cells found in the human body, such as in the bone marrow and exfoliated deciduous teeth.1 While bone-marrow/stem-cell transplantation has become integrated into medical practice for certain blood-borne cancers and other hematopoietic disorders, stem cells are postulated to have utility as a resource to produce specific, differentiated cell types, with the potential value to treat a wide array of diseases where specific cell types have been lost or destroyed.

Recent work2 published in the journal Nature raises a safety concern about cultured hES to treat disease. The protein-coding genes of 114 independent hES cell lines and 26 human pluripotent (hPS) lines grown under good manufacturing practice conditions (meaning that they could be used clinically) were analyzed. The authors found that 14 of these cell lines had developed a cancer-related missense mutation in the gene TP53, which encodes for the tumor suppressor protein, p53.  In cell lines with these mutations, the proportion of cells with the mutation increased as the cells were cultured.  The authors indicate that their findings have practical implications and suggest that regular genetic testing of cells cultured for use in treatment will be needed.  While remaining optimistic about the potential of regenerative medicine, they note the importance of identifying and addressing potential pitfalls, such as the one they uncovered in this work, saying, “As the acquisition and expansion of cancer-associated mutations in hPS cells may go unnoticed during most applications, we suggest that careful genetic characterization of hPS cells and their differentiated derivatives be carried out before clinical use.”


  1. Arora V, Arora P, Munshi AK. Banking stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth (SHED): saving for the future. J Clin Pediatr Dent 2009;33(4):289-94.
  2. Merkle FT, Ghosh S, Kamitaki N, et al. Human pluripotent stem cells recurrently acquire and expand dominant negative P53 mutations. Nature 2017;advance online publication.

Prepared by: Center for Scientific Information, ADA Science Institute

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Science in the News is a service by the American Dental Association (ADA) to its members to present current information about science topics in the news. The ADA is a professional association of dentists committed to the public's oral health, ethics, science and professional advancement; leading a unified profession through initiatives in advocacy, education, research and the development of standards. As a science-based organization, the ADA's evaluation of the scientific evidence may change as more information becomes available. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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