Stem cell breakthrough could be a game changer for personalized medicine

Nissim Benvenisty

Update 1 Apr 2014: A panel of scientists from Japan's Riken Center for Developmental Biology has concluded that lead researcher Haruko Obokata falsified images of DNA fragments published within the paper. Obokata denies these charges and is filing an appeal. Any disciplinary action and retraction of the paper will be decided following the appeal, and the experiments are currently being redone to ensure that the results were legitimate, despite the erroneous data in the paper. This article will be updated again at that time.

One of the biggest drawbacks to stem cells is that creating them is a bit of a process. There is so much potential to solve a variety of physical ailments with stem cells, but it is not yet a simple, practical solution. However, a new method generates stem cells faster and cheaper than normal and could revolutionize personal medicine. The results come from Haruko Obokata from Japan’s Riken Center for Developmental Biology and were published in Nature.

When the body is developing, certain cells have the ability to be stimulated into differentiating into a number of different cells. While these are abundant in embryos and umbilical cords, they are more rare in adults. A great deal of research has gone into transforming differentiated cells back into their stem cell state, known as induced pluripotent stem cells. There has been considerable success on this front, but it takes many months to complete and is a fairly expensive process. 

In this new technique, blood cells are exposed to acid, which shocks them back to their stem cell state. Obokata’s method is so easy, some researchers did not believe her results. In fact, there was such a lack of support, she nearly abandoned her project. Luckily, she stuck with it and developmental biologists herald the technique as “remarkable” and “a game changer” for personalized medicine that eliminates rejection, because they already come from each patient’s body. 

So far, the technique has only been demonstrated with mouse blood. Future trials will explore how the method works with human blood. If all goes well and the technology works well on human cells, this could represent a new source of cells that can be used in regenerative applications following trauma and also in treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s disease and cancer. They could also be used to generate replacement organs, which would alleviate much of the strain on the organ donation wait list.

There is still a large amount of research to be done with using stem cells as an effective treatment, and Dr. Obokata’s induction method will not change that. Also, it remains to be seen how the low pH affects the integrity of the cells as they differentiate into bone, skin, nerve, and muscle cells. However, creating a cheaper, more efficient means of creating the stem cells could expedite some aspects of that research and help pave the way for stem cells to become a mainstream method of individualized treatment.

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