The science community was buzzing this week with news of a breakthrough in stem cell research. Stem cells have the potential to transform into any tissue in the body, and are being explored as treatment options for trauma and degenerative diseases.
When we’re born, our cells are programmed to carry out a specific role. They automatically become muscle cells, skin cells, nerve cells, and that role can’t be changed.
But stem cells can be manipulated to become any kind of cell, offering the potential for regeneration in the body.
A team of Japanese researchers showed that blood cells can be reverted into stem cells, simply by bathing them in acid. They’re calling them STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells.
Stem cells can already be created in the lab, through gene manipulation, and that’s an intricate technique.
“It’s a complicated process," says Mark Noble, director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute. "What this group has discovered is that there’s a much simpler way to do this which is to apply the types of stressors that often occur in nature. And then what happens is that there’s spontaneous reprogramming.”
Noble says the discovery could make stem cell development cheaper and faster. But, while the discovery might be new, the process has been around for centuries, he says.
“This is a property that’s been around in evolution for a long time and nobody knew it could be applied in mammals," Noble explained. "So what happens in plants when you stress the plant cells is that you get knew stem cells. Now that we can do this in mammals using basically the same kinds of methods, it teaches us that these properties are so critical to the functioning of a cell that they’re maintained through hundred, and hundreds of millions of years of evolution, so this is a bedrock property of stem cell biology.”
“When I look at this from an evolutionary perspective, my response is, oh my goodness, how could I not have thought of doing that?" he said "This is exactly how it has to work.”
Noble says the discovery could speed up treatment research for a range of diseases and make personalized medicine more accessible.
He says the new method would make it easier for researchers to take a patient with a rare genetic disease and make stem cells directly from their body. And this, would allow scientists to analyze the disease process, and test treatment options.
At the end of the day, he says, the real take home message is that we need to look more closely at some of the processes that have been a part of cell reactions in nature throughout evolution, but have never been explored in mammals.
“Approaching biology from an evolutionary perspective can force you to think about, or allow you to think about, matters in very different ways," Noble said. "And the more that we do that, and the more that we understand how the principles of evolution control the function of all cell types – whether they’re plant, or human, or anything else – the faster we’re going to make the critical discoveries we need to actually get treatments for the many important diseases for which we’re trying to find solutions.”
The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature, was achieved in mouse blood cells. Research into the impact of the same external stimulus in human cells is now underway.