New Method of Creating Stem Cells is a “Game Changer”

By Carl Engelking | January 30, 2014 2:55 pm

STAP cells, glowing green, have been integrated into the mouse fetus’s body tissues. Credit: Haruko Obokata

Researchers have observed that plants, when stressed, can reprogram their cells into stem cells, capable of differentiating into many different cell types. Now, it appears mammals can perform the same trick. Japanese scientists say they have successfully reverted blood cells back to their embryonic state after dipping them in a stress-inducing bath of acid.

The team accomplished the feat using blood cells from mouse spleens, but are now trying to replicate it using human blood cells. Independent researchers are praising the discovery for both its simplicity and its potential to usher in new therapies and cloning techniques.

Game Changer

Scientists currently deploy one of two methods to obtain stem cells: extract them from human embryos, or “reprogram” adult cells into a stem-cell state (called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells). However, both methods have their drawbacks. Taking cells from an embryo destroys it in the process, and creating iPS cells requires a complicated choreography of genetic modifications.

The new method — called STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency — appears to be far easier. Chris Mason, a professor of regenerative medicine at University College of London, didn’t mask his excitement for the BBC:

“I thought — ‘my God that’s a game changer!’ It’s a very exciting, but surprise, finding… If this works in people as well as it does in mice, it looks faster, cheaper and possibly safer than other cell reprogramming technologies — personalized reprogrammed cell therapies may now be viable.”

From Blood Cell to Stem Cell

Haruko Obokata, the study’s lead author, conceived of the idea after she noticed blood cells behaved peculiarly after squeezing them through a capillary tube. The cells would shrink to a size resembling stem cells. Intrigued, she replicated the technique by exposing blood cells to different types of stress. Three stressors — perforating the cell membrane, exposure to an acidic solution, and physical squeezing — caused the cells to behave like stem cells.

However, it was only the first step. Scientists needed to demonstrate that the transformed cells were truly pluripotent — or capable of morphing into any type of cell.

To test that, scientists used mice bred to carry a gene that causes a protein in pluripotent cells to glow neon green. They injected the newly created stem cells into mouse embryos and the developing pups glowed all over, indicating that the embryos had successfully incorporated the stem cells into every tissue in their body. The team published their findings Wednesday in Nature.

A Stem Cell Milestone

Stressing blood cells harnesses a natural process, and could streamline the creation of stem cells. Jeff Karp, an associate professor at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, told CNN the new method could produce stem cells up to 10 times faster than current methods.

Further studies are needed. Researchers still don’t why stress caused blood cells to morph. Furthermore, the technique’s effectiveness in humans, and its risks, are unknown.

But if the method stands up to further tests, it could dramatically accelerate progress toward regenerative medicine — using a patient’s own stem cells to regrow tissues or organs afflicted by disease.

Image credit: Sashkin/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Lucinda Dee

    Being a two time stem cells recipient; to slow down an auto immune disease I have had for 20+ years, reading this gives me hope for more
    chances to continue this treatment using my own cells to regenerate
    my organs afflicted by this disease.

    • Njp Thompson

      I am overjoyed that this discovery will give you a boost. I am also glad that there are people who can say how stem cell regenerative medicine is helping them today after we had to listen to stupid Laura Bush saying it was decades away before people would benefit. My son had a Spinal Cord injury and if these new therapies progress, he will be able to improve his life to recover even more and live a happier and healthier life.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com John Benford

        No more Bushes or Clintons, please.

      • dan

        why not go to nigeria with him to TB church i believe he will be fine trust god

        • Dan Holstein

          Shut up, stupid.

          • dan

            thanks may he in haven answer you for me

  • Matthew Slyfield

    Exactly what kind of blood cells were used? Human red blood cells don’t have a nucleus so converting them back to stem cells should be impossible.

    • Janelle

      According to the Nature article, they used lymphocytes (white blood cells)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    Interesting so the fountain of youth turns out to be a pool of acid. Who’s jumping in first?

  • Faisal Tariq

    Okay, that’s too medicalish, tell me what good it is going to do ?

    • Angel Vilar

      Did you even read the article?

    • Linda

      I’m sorry people are so impatient with you. This research gives people hope that we can get human stem cells more ethically, faster, and cheaper. Since stem cells can become any kind of cell, we can then grow healthy cells to replace diseased or damaged cells more easily. BTW-I know it can be hard to push through reading something with unfamiliar terms, but if you try, you can usually get the gist of it and it will make you smarter.

  • Wolf

    This is amazing and could help so many people!

  • Desiree Bubb

    It could help so many millions of people but even though they say it is cheaper, would the ordinary person earning an average to lower income be able to afford it, ??

    • joe_shiki

      Not in the American health care system.

      • Don’t Even Try It!

        Got that right!

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      Obamacareless probably wouldn’t pay for it.

  • http://bossy-girls.net/ Lila Sovietskaya

    this has impact on many diseases

  • Rolando Gamboa

    What a fantastic evolution for medicine and science!! I have a friend who is very religious and finds that humanity is heading towards the inevitable apocalypse especially with all the problems in the world today…this gives humanity “HOPE” that all is NOT lost and that we have the capacity to evolve for the betterment of all humanity. way to go guys!!! thank you for the hope!!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Robert Hawkey

    What happens when stem cells from plants and animals are mixed together? Can they combine to purpose or do they just clump up? Has there been any research done on using stem cells from fungus as a stand-in?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Mrs Scott-hunt

    I love it when a solution is simple and inexpensive! Here’s hoping this technique will be as successful with human cells as it was with mouse spleen cells, although I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      I hope it works with humans, too. I just hope we don’t end up with “neon green” body parts or green people. Might get confused with those “little green men from Mars” ;-)

  • Andrew Carlan

    Yes, this is wonderful! But the most wonderful reason went unstated. I wonder why? Maybe because it impacts on abortion and the taking of human life. Now even the most deceitful and dubious argument for freezing embryonic cells has evaporated as it did long ago ignoring of the growing scientific evidence that life, not only of humans but of all, at least, mammals, begins at conception. Great article!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Robert Hawkey

    Humans and fungus share many genes. Plus it is already squishy. There are fewer moral issues involved and the anti-fungus lobby is loosely organized and poorly funded.

    Let us not dismiss the fungal stem cell without further study. As noted by others, the fungus is already among us.

  • duelles

    Hmm. Isn’t DR Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology extracting a single cell from an embryo without altering the embryo?

  • Herne Webber

    Aside from the expected attempts to create human tissues outside of the body and transplant them back in, I wonder if they will be able to simply remove some blood, stress it, put it back into the person’s blood, and the newly pleuripotent cells might then go to where they are needed most at the time? If anything could be that simple, that would be great (and *very* cheap, because plasma donation centers are already set up to do everything but the stressing). But even if not, it could be something as simple as getting the new cells into the organ where they are needed via direct injection (such as into the spinal nerves). This is not mere idle speculation. Liver transplanted folks have their own stem cells migrate into the donor liver from their blood, while the donor liver’s foreign cells age out and die. After an uncertain amount of time, the liver has practically speaking become the own person’s liver once again.

  • natsera

    I’d love to have some of my own pancreatic beta cells regrown, if the immune system can be tamed so as not to destroy them again!

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