Research into regenerative medicine is an area where significant progress continues to be made, and the latest breakthrough has been heralded as a "major scientific discovery."
Two recent studies published on Wednesday in the journal Nature outline a ground-breaking new method of creating stem cells merely by dipping blood cells into acid.
Dr. Haruko Obokata at the Riken lab in Kobe, Japan, described how her team had "shocked" blood cells with acid and found that this triggered their transformation into stem cells. The new form of cells have been termed "STAP" (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells.
Dr. Obokata said she was "really surprised" that the cells responded in this way. "It’s exciting to think about the new possibilities these findings offer us, not only in regenerative medicine, but cancer as well, " she said.
"I think the process we’ve described mimics Mother Nature," said Dr. Charles Vacanti, director of the laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and senior author of the other study. "It’s a natural process that cells normally respond to."
The new method has been described as "remarkable" by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Medical Research Council.
"It is going to be a while before the nature of these cells are understood, and whether they might prove to be useful for developing therapies," he said. "The really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH shock triggers reprogramming – and why it does not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar or drink cola?"
Dr Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at Kings College London, was enthusiastic about the findings from the Japanese study.
"The approach is indeed revolutionary," he said."It will make a fundamental change in how scientists perceive the interplay of environment and genome."
This represents a major development in stem cell research, a field of study that specialises in developing therapies to repair damaged tissues, and to grow replacement bodily organs. The formative cells can be converted into virtually any sort of tissue, and trials have already begun to use them for eye, heart and brain repair.
The breakthrough was achieved in mouse blood cells, and Obokat explained how her team had created several dozen mice from "home grown" stem cells and then monitored their progress for up to two years. "So far they appear to be healthy, fertile, and normal," she said.
Further research is now ongoing in an attempt to achieve the same results with human blood. Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, said if it also works in humans then "the age of personalised medicine would have finally arrived."
"It’s a very exciting, but surprise, finding," he said. "If this works in people as well as it does in mice, it looks faster, cheaper and possibly safer than other cell reprogramming technologies – personalised reprogrammed cell therapies may now be viable."
Stem cells are naturally created when a fertilized egg begins to divide. During the first four to five days of cell division, cells known as pluripotent stem cells develop. These can evolve into any cell in the body. Until now, stem cells have been obtained by various other methods, one of which is very controversial as it derives the cells from the creation of embryos, including human embryos. The emotive issue for "Pro-life" groups is that when stem cells are removed from the embryo it is destroyed. Other research has managed to produce embryonic-like stem cells from skin cells, by manipulating their DNA to prompt them to begin producing pluripotent cells, but these cells have limited potential for use as it is not advisable to introduce extra DNA into patients.
The new method avoids the need to destroy embryos or introduce new genetic material, and, because it can utilise cells from the patient, the new tissue or organ is unlikely to be rejected. It is also much quicker and less costly than previous processes; for example, to create a tissue sample to address age-related macular degeneration can take ten months and is extremely expensive.
Of course, its potential for human use is still untested, and it is not yet known why the cells actually behave in this way, but further research is ongoing and Vacanti hopes that the process could be tested clinically in humans within three years.
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