A radical and remarkably easy way to make cells that can grow into any tissue in the body has been developed by scientists in Japan.
The feat has been hailed as a major discovery by researchers familiar with the work, and if it can be repeated in human tissue, could lead to cheap and simple procedures to make patient-matched stem cells that could repair damaged or diseased organs.
In a series of elegant experiments, researchers showed that cells plucked from animals could be turned into all-powerful master cells simply by immersing them in a mildly acidic solution for half an hour.
To demonstrate the potential of the cells, the scientists injected them into mouse embryos and showed that they grew into tissues and organs throughout the animals' bodies.
Haruko Obokata at the Riken lab in Kobe, Japan, told the Guardian that her team had created several dozen mice that had tissues grown from the cells, and had followed their health for one to two years. "So far they appear to be healthy, fertile, and normal," she said.
The finding has stunned many researchers because previous attempts to make stem cells have been fraught with difficulties. One route is cloning, which is controversial because it involves the creation and destruction of embryos. A more recent method, called induced pluripotency, uses genetic manipulation to convert adult cells into a more flexible, immature state.
The work, reported in two papers in the journal Nature, was "a major scientific discovery that will be opening a new era in stem-cell biology," said Dusko Ilic, a stem-cell scientist at King's College London.
His enthusiasm was shared by Chris Mason, a stem-cell expert at University College London. "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," he said.
Obokata started work on the procedure five years ago while working at Harvard Medical School. The idea came to her after noticing by chance that cells that had been squeezed through a thin tube shrank to the size of stem cells. She went on to look more closely at what effects different kinds of stress – from heat, starvation and acidic conditions – had on cells.
After years of perfecting the experiments, Obokata showed that she could convert white blood cells taken from newborn mice into cells that behaved very much like stem cells. She went on to do the same with brain, skin, muscle, bone marrow, lung and liver cells. "It was very surprising to see that such a remarkable transformation could be triggered simply by stimuli from the outside," she said.
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