Saturday science subject: Stem cells from skin

— 12:00 PM on December 1, 2007

U.S. and Japanese scientists have developed a technique to generate embryonic-like stem cells from simple skin cells. As BBC News reports, the technique not only sidesteps the ethical controversy that lies with harvesting embryonic stem cells from human embryos, but it is also simpler, and it minimizes the risk of rejection by the host, since cells can be "personalized."

The Japanese team used a chemical cocktail containing just four gene-controlling proteins to transform adult human fibroblasts - skin cells that are easy to obtain and grow in culture - into a pluripotent state.

The cells created were similar, but not identical, to embryonic stem cells, and the researchers used them to produce brain and heart tissue.

After 12 days in the laboratory clumps of cells grown to mimic heart muscle tissue started beating.

The US team, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, achieved the same effect by using a slightly different combination of chemicals.

They have created eight new stem cell lines for potential use in research.

Researchers do point out that more work is required before the process can be refined and be deemed safe. BBC News explains, "At present both techniques rely on viruses to introduce new material into the cells, which carries a potential risk of contamination." Nonetheless, researchers are excited about the technique's future. Professor James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for ones, believes "it's going to completely change the field."

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to turn into any of the human body's more than 200 cell types. As a result, the cells could potentially be used to repair damaged tissue and treat a number of ailments, from Parkinson's disease, blindness, and spinal cord injuries to some cancers and immune system-related genetic diseases.

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