The Record: Stem cell advance

TWO NEW studies offer extraordinary hope that we may be closer to the day when people can use their own cells to treat significant medical conditions, without using controversial stem cell methods that involve harvesting human embryos.

Stem cell research has provided a glimpse of a future in which doctors can reverse the effects of certain ailments and decrease people's suffering. But the topic also carries with it a passionate ethical debate. This new, faster method if proved successful could push us past much of that controversy.

Researchers in Japan published studies in the journal Nature this week that described how they "reprogrammed" blood cells taken from mice by soaking them in an acidic solution. The scientists found that when the cells which they called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency were injected back into mice, they multiplied and grew into heart, bone, brain and other organs.

Medical researchers have worked for years to use pluripotent stem cells to treat diseased organs, severed spinal cords and other conditions like diabetes, blindness and muscular dystrophy.

While not all stem cell research has involved human embryos, that method is commonly known by the public and makes many people uncomfortable. Some religious groups have pushed to have the practice banned. Scientists aren't even sure that method would work, since a patient's body could reject foreign cells.

However, researchers say this new method could increase the chance of success because it would use a person's own cells.

"If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient's own cells as starting material," said Chris Mason, a professor of regenerative medicine bioprocessing at University College London. "The age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived."

Mason wasn't involved in the study but is one of several outside experts who have weighed in expressing that this study looks extremely promising.

"It's remarkable," said Rudolf Jaenisch, a pioneering stem cell researcher at MIT. "Let's see whether it works in human cells, and there's no reason why it shouldn't."

The lead study author, Haruko Obokata, a biochemistry researcher at the RIKEN research institute in Japan, said they have started looking at how this method works with human cells.

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The Record: Stem cell advance

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