A Safer Way to Transform Skin Cells Into Stem Cells Brings Medical Trials Closer

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 10:52 am

iPS cellsResearchers have found a new way to reprogram human skin cells to act like multipurpose stem cells, and say their safe technique produces stem cells that are ready for medical use. If the researchers are right, clinical trials on the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can turn into virtually any cell type and potentially be used to treat disorders ranging from spinal cord injury to diabetes, could start within two years [Nature News].

Many experts say that reprogrammed skin cells have several advantages over embryonic stem cells, for reasons both societal and medical. Using adult cells dodges the ethical controversy involved in taking cells from embryos, and it also raises the possibility that patients’ own cells could be used in their medical treatment, negating the chance that the cells would be rejected by their bodies. But reprogramming cells is still a scientific frontier, and researchers have struggled to find safe ways to accomplish the feat.

The new study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, builds on the breakthrough discovery in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, who similarly coaxed human skin cells to revert to a pristine, embryonic state by introducing four key genes into the cells, piggybacked on viruses. However, some of those genes are known to cause cancer, which made Yamanaka’s stem cells — known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — unsuitable for human use [Time]. For the current study, an international team of Korean and American researchers found a way to instead use the proteins produced by the genes to transform skin cells.

Study coauthor Robert Lanza explains that his team used a peptide, a protein fragment, to drag the human proteins into the cells. “These have been around for a long time,” Lanza said. “The AIDS virus uses the peptide to get into the cells it infects,” he said [Reuters]. The researchers said the iPS cells they created generated a range of cells, including neural, muscle and cartilage cells. Their method could be used to produce iPS cells for drug research, disease studies and future medical uses. But they also reported that the method was “very slow and inefficient and requires further optimization” [Worcester Telegram].

Lanza, for one, is eager to put reprogrammed cells to use in medical trials. “After a few more flight tests — in order to assure everything is working properly — it should be ready for commercial use,” Lanza said…. He said the company would seek Food and Drug Administration permission to test the cells in people by next year — a process unlikely to be quick, especially with a brand-new technology such as this one [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats: One Step Closer to Embryo-Free (and Controversy-Free) Stem Cells
80beats: FDA Approves the First Clinical Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells
80beats: Researchers Create Stem Cells Without Cancerous Side Effects

Image: Cell Stem Cell / Dohoon Kim, et al. The iPS cells grew into a variety of cells.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Tristan

    All I can really say is “Wow”

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    We need this fast-tracked – there are plenty of people out there dying of things that could be cured with this technology… I’m guessing they’d volunteer to be guinea pigs if death was their other option. If I was dying of something potentially curable by stem cell treatments, I’d bang on any door I could find until I got some experimental procedure done – any complications have got to be better than dying – and hey, if the treatment does kill you, well, it’s not like you weren’t expecting to die anyway.

  • Kathryn Collin

    I agree 100% with Nick. It is about time the world got on with stem cell transplants in humans and stop talking about what can be done !! People need this treatment now and are willing to be guinea pigs, you only have to look at how many people are going to China and India. The days are gone were we are just going to sit around and just wait forever for some form of treatment to be available – the technology is available so why no proceed.

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