Who Needs Stem Cells, Anyway?

By understanding how cell specialization is regulated, scientists could be able to convert one cell type into another, rendering the harvesting of stem cells from embryonic tissue unnecessary.
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The cover story of the May issue of the FASEB Journal describes how Stanford University researchers were able to reprogram human adult skin cells into other types.

In this case, they transformed human skin cells into mouse muscle cells, and vice versa.

The research shows that by understanding how cell specialization is regulated, scientists could be able to convert one cell type into another, rendering the harvesting of stem cells from embryonic tissue unnecessary.

"Regenerative medicine provides hope of novel and powerful treatments for many diseases, but depends on the availability of cells with specific characteristics to replace those that are lost or dysfunctional," said Helen M. Blau, the senior scientist involved in the study and director of the Baxter Laboratory in Genetic Pharmacology at Stanford, in a press release. "We show here that mature cells can be directly reprogrammed to generate those necessary cells, providing another way besides embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells of overcoming this important bottleneck to restoring tissue function."

To transform a specialized adult cell from one species into a different specialized adult cell of another, the scientists first used a chemical treatment to fuse skin and muscle cells, creating cells with nuclei from both the human skin cells and mouse muscle cells. Once within the same cell wall, the human skin cells and mouse muscle nuclei could send chemical signals to one another, essentially starting a conversation.

Because one cell type came from a human and the other from a mouse, the researches could distinguish between the genes expressed on the two different kinds of nuclei. After several experiments, they were able to induce the human skin nuclei to make mouse muscle genes and vice versa, effectively changing the cell from one type to the other.

"Reprogramming mature cells will likely complement the use of embryonic stem cells in regenerating tissues," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., editor-in-chief of the FASEB Journal, in the release. "By elucidating the regulators of reprogramming, as the Stanford group is doing, it may be possible to generate replacement cells in cases where stem cells are not present or not appropriate."

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