Embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells are the stem cells of teratocarcinomas, and the malignant counterparts of embryonic stem (ES) cells derived from the inner cell mass of blastocyst-stage embryos, whether human or mouse. On prolonged culture in vitro, human ES cells acquire karyotypic changes that are also seen in human EC cells. They also ‘adapt’, proliferating faster and becoming easier to maintain with time in culture. Furthermore, when cells from such an ‘adapted’ culture were inoculated into a SCID (severe combined immunodeficient) mouse, we obtained a teratocarcinoma containing histologically recognizable stem cells, which grew out when the tumour was explanted into culture and exhibited properties of the starting ES cells. In these features, the ‘adapted’ ES cells resembled malignant EC cells. The results suggest that ES cells may develop in culture in ways that mimic changes occurring in EC cells during tumour progression.

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