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Antonio Regalado

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Stressful Research Turns Cells into Stem Cells

Claims for a new, simple, technique to create stem cells.

  • January 29, 2014

A new report in Nature claims that bathing cells from an adult mouse in a simple acid solution turns them into potent and versatile stem cells.

The advance, carried out by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, suggests that it may be far easier than anticipated to reprogram adult cells, possibly opening up new avenues in regenerative medicine. Scientists have long anticipated being able to grow tissues or organs using just a few cells from a patient.

Cells capable of growing and being manipulated in the lab, while retaining the ability to form a complete animal, were discovered in 1981, after being culled from mouse embryos. Then in 2006 work that later won a Nobel Prize, Japanese researchers found a way to induce any adult cell into a similar embryonic state by introducing just four genes. The resulting cells are known as iPS cells.

The new result indicates that much the same result occurs simply by subjecting cells to the stress of an acid bath.

That may provide far simpler ways to make stem cells. But the finding is so surprising that the authors said they had difficulty convincing other scientists and getting their paper published.  “Everyone said it was an artefact — there were some really hard days,” Haruko Obokata, a stem cell biologist who carried out the project told Nature news.

Stem cell research has previously been troubled both by outright fraud and results that turned out to be incorrect. The latest work, which got its start several years ago in the laboratory of Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Brigham and Women’s, was slow to progress for that reason. “Our lab was pretty ridiculed,” Vacanti told the Boston Globe.

The researchers next need to show the technique works with human cells. “Until you show it works in humans, it’s hard to know what the application is going to be,” William Lowry, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles told the Associated Press. “For now, the question of whether it’s a lab curiosity or a big medical benefit, that’s still up in the air.”

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