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Canadian researchers have, for the first time, isolated special stem cells from human umbilical cord tissue and conducted experiments showing they can be used to regenerate tissue.

The findings, published today in the Public Library of Science journal, provide realistic hope that scientists will one day be able to harness those cells to treat specific ailments or diseases, according to John Davies, professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study.

It's a development that has been in the works for several years after Dr. Davies discovered that umbilical cord tissue is a vast and potentially inexhaustible source of "mesenchymal stem cells" which can differentiate into a variety of cell types.

While they are present in the body, mesenchymal stem cells had never been isolated in humans - until now.

Dr. Davies and his colleagues have shown some of the stem cells can regenerate bone, muscle and other kinds of tissue. They also discovered the cells are part of a hierarchy, or family, which leads researchers to believe some cells have superior abilities to regenerate certain kinds of tissues compared with others.

It's an exciting possibility because it could mean researchers will eventually be able to use certain stem cells that have a strong ability to regenerate specific tissue. For instance, some of these cells may be best suited to produce heart tissue, while others may be more appropriate for regenerating bone or cartilage, according to co-investigator of the study Armand Keating, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and director of the cell therapy program at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

It's become increasingly common for parents in Canada to be asked if they want to store their baby's "cord blood" after the child is born. That's because the umbilical cord is filled with blood that contains stem cells.

But Dr. Davies discovered that umbilical cord tissue - which is normally discarded - contains a vast amount of those special stem cells. It's a breakthrough that could mean scientists will have access to a potentially inexhaustible supply of MSCs, considering that millions of babies are born every year.

And, unlike the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cells derived from human fetuses, MSCs don't raise the same moral or ethical questions, Dr. Davies said.

Scientist have great hopes for stem cells because they have the ability to turn into every single specialized cell that make up the human body. The human embryo is a plentiful source of stem cells. But as the body takes shape and matures, they become more scarce.

That's one of the reasons the discovery that stem cells can be isolated from human umbilical cord tissue holds such promise.

The next major step will be to embark on research to determine the capabilities of these umbilical cord-derived stem cells, Dr. Davies said. While it will likely take years before scientists have a clear understanding of how these cells work, they have significant potential that could one day change the face of treatment for many diseases.

"This is world-leading research and the Canadian public can be proud of the fact we're at the leading edge of all of this," Dr. Davies said.