GAME-CHANGING STEM CELL DISCOVERY

Personalized medicine
is a step closer, thanks
to the development of
a new technique

A revolutionary method for
creating cells that can grow
into any type of tissue has
been developed by scientists in Japan,
potentially ushering in a new era of
personalised medicine. Researchers at
the RIKEN Center for Developmental
Biology have found that almost any
mature adult cell taken from mice can
be transformed into a pluripotent stem
cell. These are of potentially great use
in medicine since they can transform
into any kind of cell in the body.
The process, dubbed stimulustriggered
acquisition of pluripotency
(STAP), involves shocking cells with
a suitable dose of stress. Though the
exact mechanism is not yet understood,
the stress causes the cells to lose their
specific characteristics and enter a state
of pluripotency. The scientists tried
squeezing the cells, heating them and
and and starving them, but had the best results
when soaking them in a mildly acidic solution.
“It’s exciting to think about the new possibilities
these findings open up, not only in areas like
regenerative medicine, but perhaps in the study of
cellular ageing and cancer as well,” explained lead
researcher Haruko Obokata.
Pluripotent stem cells have already been created
using several different methods. One type, called
Embryonic stem cells (ESCs), can be harvested
from embryos that have been fertilised in vitro
in a lab. However, this has proved controversial
as it involves the destruction of human embryos.
Another type, induced Pluripotent Stem cells
(iPS), were produced in 2006 by a team from
Japan led by Shinya Yamanaka. They were
produced from adult cells by manipulating genetic
material. The team was later awarded the Nobel
Prize. However, the new technique has the
advantage of being much simpler, taking only half
an hour to produce the cells.

To confirm that the cells created through
the stressing process were pluripotent, and so
able to transform into other cells in the body,
the researchers tagged some of them with a
fluorescent dye and injected them into a mouse
embryo. These glowing cells spread through
the animal as it grew, proving that they were
pluripotent. The mice were then bred and
produced healthy offspring.
The next step is to attempt the process in
other mammals and ultimately humans. If
successful, doctors will be able to create stem
cells specific to each patient from a simple skin
biopsy or blood sample. Eventually, stem cells
could be used for everything from treating
spinal cord injuries and baldness to growing skin
for use in skin grafts, or even growing entire
replacement organs.
“For me the most interesting questions will be
those that gain us a deeper understanding of the
principles,” said Obokata.


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