Nature magazine published two new studies Wednesday detailing what has been called a breakthrough in regenerative medicine. Research shows that by purposely putting mature cells under stress, they can be turned into embryonic-like stem cells, which can then be transformed into any other kind of cell possible. The process can be summarized succinctly: Put the cells in an acidic environment. According to Nature editor David Cyranoski, the “surprisingly simple method” of exposing the cells to stress — like low pH — can make cells that are “more malleable than iPS cells, and do it faster and more efficiently.”
“It’s amazing. I would have never thought external stress could have this effect,” Yoshiki Sasai — a stem cell researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and a co-author of the latest studies — told Nature. Fellow researcher and co-author Haruko Obokata explained that it took five years to develop the method and convince Sasai and other researchers of its validity. “Everyone said it was an artefact — there were some really hard days,” said Obokata.
But in the end, scientists discovered that the process “mimics Mother Nature,” according to Dr. Charles Vacanti, director of the laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and senior author of one of the studies. “It’s a natural process that cells normally respond to,” he told CNN.
As Vacanti explained to the publication, the process solves an important problem in the testing of cell-based therapies. The human body may reject stem cells that originated from another individual, but through the method described in the recent Nature studies, the individual’s own mature cell is used to create the stem cell. It does not involve the destruction of embryos or the insertion of new genetic material into the cell, as earlier methods did. The process — known as “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP — is also significantly faster, allowing cells to be reprogrammed between five seconds and 10 seconds faster than other means.
Mice were used to study the STAP process. Fluorescent tagged blood cells that had been exposed to an acidic environment and transformed into the embryonic-like state were injected into a mouse embryo. Those cell clusters could become tissues in all of the organs that the researchers tested. The use of blood cells was essential; Obokata had to convince skeptics that the pluripotent cells were converted mature cells and not pre-existing pluripotent cells. The cells used were T cells, a type of white blood cell with a maturity that is “clear from a rearrangement that its genes undergo during development,” according to Nature’s Cyranoski.
The problem is the research did not show why the stressful environment cells caused them to become STAP cells, as Jeff Karp, a Brigham & Women’s Hospital associate professor of medicine, told CNN. Karp was not involved in the study. Additionally, the effectiveness of STAP cells has not yet been tested in humans or compared with bona fide embryonic stem cells, he said. But Vacanti does hope he process will begin human clinical trials within three years.
Vacanti and his colleagues believe that exploring possible ties between cancer and the STAP process could potentially provide a model for the process by which cells become cancerous.
Stem cell research — both a hot-button political issue and a key aspect of regenerative medicine — has thus revealed that the undifferentiated biological cells found in embryos (as well as in the bone marrow, lipid cells, and blood of adults) could be a possible gateway to curing many medical conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes.
For politicians representing conservative constituencies, at issue is the use of taxpayer funds “for embryo-destructive stem cell research,” as then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said in 2009, after President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But scientific advancements have lessened the need for the destruction of new embryos, thus decelerating the debate over stem cell research. In 2007, scientists announced that human induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, had been developed.
IPS cells are adult cells that have been “genetically reprogrammed” to act like embryonic stem cells. While research has since suggested that iPS cells may not be an effective replacement for embryonic cells, further discoveries have unveiled new methods for the artificial creation of stem cells.
The human body is comprised of cells, each with a specific function: nerve cells, muscle cells, skin cells. But stem cells have the power to become any other type of cell, and it is that characteristic that gives them the ability to regenerate the body. In nature, stem cells are created every time a fertilized egg begins to divide. It is in the first four or five days of cell division that these pluripotent cells, or cells capable of giving rise to different types of cells, develop. Removing stem cells from the embryo destroys it, which is why embryonic stem cell research is controversial.
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