A new method for creating stem cells could see life-saving research move forwards, thanks to a team of scientists in the UK and Canada.
Stem cells are sought after because they can be turned into any type of cell in the human body, potentially providing great medical benefits. There are two types – embryonic, and adult.
Working with embryonic stem cells can be very problematic for scientists, as producing them involves the destruction of human embryos, which religious groups and others object to on moral grounds.
Up until now, scientists have attempted to avoid the issue by using viruses to revert adult stem cells to an embryonic state. This method is not without problems however, as the genetically reprogrammed cells were liable to contain genes which cause cancer, making them unusable for human transplantation.
Two teams led by Dr Keisuke Kaji from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Andras Nagy from the University of Toronto worked together to eliminate the need for viruses by modifying adult human skin cells.
The new process was discovered after a chance meeting between the two men. They realised they had each solved half of the puzzle, and worked together to produce adult stem cells that behave exactly like embryonic ones.
Dr Kaji and colleagues had discovered a way to insert the four necessary genes into a cell in one go, but not how to remove them fully. Meanwhile, Dr Nagy’s team had figured out how to remove the necessary genes from a cell once they had been inserted, but not how to get them there in the first place. By joining forces, they could carry out both tasks successfully. Dr Kaji said:
“I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes. Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible. This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine, and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.
“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”
With this discovery following President Obama lifting his predecessor’s ban on stem cell research shortly after taking office earlier this year, things are certainly looking up for scientists.