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Stem cells produced from 'reprogrammed' skin cells

11 June 2007
Appeared in BioNews 411

Three independent research groups have reported successfully causing skin cells from adult mice to revert back to an embryonic stem cell-like state; a technique that could potentially help to resolve the ongoing ethical debate over stem cell research. Published in the journal Nature, this groundbreaking research could lead to future treatments in humans for regenerating damaged tissue in diseases like Parkinson's or type 1 diabetes, or even for whole organ regeneration.

Shina Yamanaka, who led the Japanese arm of the study at Kyoto University, reported similar findings last year, but with some major flaws - while the 'stem cells' could be triggered to develop into any type of body tissue (called pluripotence), they had some behaviours which were not consistent with them being stem cells; for example the fact that live animals could not be generated from them.

This year Yamanaka's team returns, backed by the success of two other US research groups, with strong evidence that the three teams have now successfully produced 'induced pluripotent stem cells' (otherwise known as iPS cells). These cells have been used to produce viable embryos that survive to adulthood and that themselves produce offspring carrying the same iPS cells; a strong indicator that they are bona fide stem cells.

Through a surprisingly straightforward technique, say researchers, the iPS cells are produced by using a harmless virus to insert four basic genes into the genome of skin cell. Here they trigger changes that reprogramme the cell to revert back to an embryonic stem cell-like state.

If reproducible in humans, it is hoped that iPS cells could provide an unlimited and ethically favourable source of stem cells for research.

Speaking to The New York Times, the US Bishop, Richard Doerflinger, said the technique 'raises no serious moral problem, because it creates embryonic-like stem cells without creating, harming or destroying human lives at any stage'.

Although this finding represents a major breakthrough in understanding, there are some key issues which will need to be resolved before use in humans. Firstly, because the virus inserts the genes into the mouse genome at random, it could potentially activate cancer-causing genes. Secondly, one of the four genes needed to trigger the switch into stem cells is itself a cancer-causing gene, explaining why 1 in 5 of Yamanaka's mice went on to develop cancer.

Nonetheless, optimism levels are high and Yamanaka, quoted in Nature, says that his team are working 'day and night' to resolve these problems and that he expects 'some big success with humans next year'.

Simple switch turns cells embryonic
Nature News |  7 June 2007
Skin tests offer stem cell hope
BBC News Online |  6 June 2007
Stem cells: From adult to embryo
New Scientist |  6 June 2007
7 December 2009 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Researchers at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), lead by Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, have identified genetic pathways that can speed up the process of reprogramming mature adult cells into stem cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells)....
2 March 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Researchers in the UK and Canada have successfully created induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells suitable for potential future use in humans. iPS cells are adult cells (in this case skin cells) that have been reprogrammed into a pluripotent embryonic-like state, able to divide into any cell in...
29 September 2008 - by Ben Jones 
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, US, have developed a new, safer method for creating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells - adult cells made to behave like stem cells by inserting four key genes. Previously these genes have been delivered into cells using retroviruses, which can potentially trigger...
22 September 2008 - by Ben Jones 
The Japanese Patent Office has granted the first patent for induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) to Kyoto University, where researcher Shinya Yamanaka produced both the first non-human iPS cells in 2006 and, using the same process, the first human iPS cells in 2007.The Japanese patent...
6 May 2008 - by Evelyn Harvey 
Heart and blood cells can be grown from reprogrammed mouse skin cells, report University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers in the journal Stem Cells. The researchers say this is the first demonstration that stem cells from reprogrammed skin can be used to generate three types of...
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