New stem cell may aid medicine

Mouse cells exposed to an acidic environment turned into embryonic-like "STAP" cells. These were used to generate an entire fetus.

A simple lab treatment can turn ordinary cells from mice into a new kind of stem cell, according to a surprising study that hints at a new way to grow tissue for treating illnesses like diabetes and Parkinsons disease.

Researchers in Boston and Japan exposed spleen cells from newborn mice to an acidic environment. In lab tests, that made the cells act like embryonic stem cells, showing enough versatility to produce the tissues of a mouse embryo, for example.

Cells from skin, muscle, fat and other tissue of newborn mice went through the same change, which could be triggered by exposing cells to any of a variety of stressful situations, researchers said.

Its very simple to do. I think you could do this actually in a college lab, said Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston, an author of two papers published online Wednesday by the journal Nature. They can be found here and here.

If it works in humans, the method could improve upon an existing method of generating artificial embryonic stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells. These IPS cells can be made from patients, then turned into the needed cells, reducing the possibility of transplant rejection. Pluripotent is a term for cells that act like embryonic stem cells, which can turn into nearly any tissue of the body, except for placental tissues.

In San Diego, scientists led by The Scripps Research Institutes Jeanne Loring propose to treat Parkinsons disease patients with brain cells generated from their own IPS cells. Because these cells arent taken from human embryos, they dont raise the ethical concerns some have with using embryonic stem cells.

However induced pluripotent stem cells are made by reprogramming ordinary cells with added genes or chemicals, which raises concerns about safety. The new method, in contrast, causes the cell to change its own behavior after researchers have applied an external stress. The actual DNA sequence is unaltered, creating a change that is epigenetic, or taking place outside the genome. Researchers dubbed the new cells STAP cells, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

This is part of a shift in our view of pluripotency, Loring said by email. Eight years ago we thought that cells were stable -- whatever they are, they stay that way. Now, were thinking in terms of how powerful epigenetics is -- that we can change cell fate without changing their DNA.

Loring said it will take years to apply the new method for human therapy.

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New stem cell may aid medicine

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