Scientists Have Discovered A Revolutionary Stem Cell Method Which Opens The Door To Growing Organs Cheaply

Cells generated in an entire mouse fetus. Image: Haruko Obokata

Some are calling it stem cells on acid, a play on words referring to a new technique announced today.

Other scientists say it’s a game changer and that the era of personalised medicine is near.

What researchers have found is a cheaper and simpler way to make stem cells which could herald a new wave of medical treatment including growing new, or repair damaged, organs.

So far the studies have been carried out only with mouse cells. The next step is to test human cells.

In the journal Nature today, Japanese and US researchers say exposing ordinary body cells to acidic conditions returns them to the state from which they can go on to become any type of cell.

In a second study, Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and colleagues show that cells created in this way can go on to become normally functioning organs in mouse embryos, including a beating heart.

The process is so simple that a brief acid shock can, for example, generate brain cells from skin cells.

Kuldip Sidhu, Chair of Stem Cell Biology at the University of New South Wales, says the major question now is whether this new approach will work with human cells.

And if it does could the technique be used to regenerate tissue in damaged organs.

“If that does turn out to be possible, we could be looking at the next pillar of human medicine,” Associate Professor Sidhu says.

Chris Mason, Chair of Regenerative Medicine Bioprocessing at the University College London, says it’s an incredible discovery.

“Who would have thought that to reprogram adult cells to an embryonic stem cell-like state just required a small amount of acid for less than half an hour,” he says.

“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 personalised medicine would have finally arrived.”

However, he believes it will still be many years before the technology could potentially be in everyday clinical practice.

Bob Williamson at the University of Melbourne says that if this works for humans it would be possible to try to understand diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease in the test tube by studying pancreatic cells or brain cells derived from a patient’s blood cells.

“Some people will think of possible cell transplants for cell therapy, but that is many years in the future because cells obtained in this way must first be proven to be safe,” the professor of medical genetics says.

“However, the new technique could provide a way for medical researchers to prepare stem cells for many diseases and disorders for careful study in the lab, leading to better understanding and ultimately to better prevention or treatment.”

The articles published in Nature today: ‘Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency‘; ‘Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency‘.

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