Stem cell breakthrough may be simple, fast, cheap

Researchers have developed a new method of making stem cells. Mouse cells were "stressed" in several ways, such as by being placed in an acidic environment. Researchers were then able to use those cells to generate various tissues in developing mice. This image shows a mouse fetus that has tissues that grew in part from the stem cells. (Photo: Haruko Obokata/NATURE)

We run too hard, we fall down, were sick all of this puts stress on the cells in our bodies. But in whats being called a breakthrough in regenerative medicine, researchers have found a way to make stem cells by purposely putting mature cells under stress.

Two new studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature describe a method of taking mature cells from mice and turning them into embryonic-like stem cells, which can be coaxed into becoming any other kind of cell possible. One method effectively boils down to this: Put the cells in an acidic environment.

I think the process weve described mimics Mother Nature, said Dr. Charles Vacanti, director of the laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham & Womens Hospital in Boston and senior author on one of the studies. Its a natural process that cells normally respond to.

Both studies represent a new step in the thriving science of stem cell research, which seeks to develop therapies to repair bodily damage and cure disease by being able to insert cells that can grow into whatever tissues or organs are needed. If you take an organ thats functioning at 10% of normal and bring it up to 25% functionality, that could greatly reduce the likelihood of fatality in that particular disease, Vacanti said.

This method by Vacanti and his colleagues is truly the simplest, cheapest, fastest method ever achieved for reprogramming [cells], said Jeff Karp, associate professor of medicine at the Brigham & Womens Hospital and principal faculty member at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He was not involved in the study.

Before the technique described in Nature, the leading candidates for creating stem cells artificially were those derived from embryos and stem cells from adult cells that require the insertion of DNA to become reprogrammable.

Stem cells are created the natural way every time an egg that is fertilized begins to divide. During the first four to five days of cell division, so-called pluripotent stem cells develop. They have the ability to turn into any cell in the body. Removing stem cells from the embryo destroys it, which is why this type of research is controversial.

Researchers have also developed a method of producing embryonic-like stem cells by taking a skin cell from a patient, for example, and adding a few bits of foreign DNA to reprogram the skin cell to become like an embryo and produce pluripotent cells, too. However, these cells are usually used for research because researchers do not want to give patients cells with extra DNA.

The new method does not involve the destruction of embryos or inserting new genetic material into cells, Vacanti said. It also avoids the problem of rejection: The body may reject stem cells that came from other people, but this method uses an individuals own mature cells.

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Stem cell breakthrough may be simple, fast, cheap

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