This is big.
Scientists have found a way to create embryonic stem cells without using an embryo or without introducing genetic material. The discovery could revolutionize medicine by giving doctors a way to repair diseased and damaged tissue — think heart disease, blindness, skin burns — with organs and tissue grown from the patient’s own cells.
The researchers, led by Haruko Obokata from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, found that by when they applied various stresses to white blood cells, such as bathing them in acid or putting them in a low-oxygen environment, nearly bringing them to the brink of death, some of the cells lost their “blood identity” and reverted to a state equivalent to an embryonic stem cell.
They call these cells STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.
When the scientists transferred the STAP cells to a special growth-promoting solution, they began to multiply and look like embryonic stem cells, which can grow into any type of cell — skin, bone, organ — depending on the environment into which they were placed.
And when the cells were injected into mice embryos, they contributed to the overall tissue of the baby mice, something that researchers didn’t think would be possible.
Not only is the approach faster and far cheaper than current methods, but it eliminates the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of an embryo, raising ethical concerns. The new approach also avoids the genetic risks associated with the alternative to the embryonic method, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. That technique requires the introduction of genetic material into a cell, and has lead to tumor growth in some cases.
Inspiration for the research came from techniques already used in labs and in gardening, where a change in the physical environment can alter a cell’s identity. In the lab, for example, frog skin cells can be switched to brain cells if exposed to a solution with a low pH. And botanists can grow a new plant by creating a plant callus, a node of plant cells created from a physical injury to an existing plant.
So far, the STAP technique seems to work in mice. But the results are promising for humans.
Professor Chris Mason, chair of regenerative medicine bioprocessing, at University College London told the Press Association, “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. The age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived.”
The researchers reported their results in this weeks journal of Nature.
Credit: Haruko Obokata