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Rejuvenated Skin Cells Make Stem Cells

Adult Cells Turned Back Into Embryo-Like Stem Cells
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 20, 2007 -- Working independently, scientists in the U.S. and in Japan have turned human skin cells back into embryo-like stem cells.

The reprogrammed adult cells become "truly pluripotent" stem cells -- that is, they can become any cell in the human body. Until now, only embryonic stem cells could do that trick. But unlike with embryonic stem cells, no embryo has to be destroyed to get these stem cell lines.

"Basically, what we are doing is trying to turn somatic cells from an adult body back into stem cells similar to embryonic stem cells," University of Wisconsin researcher Junying Yu, PhD, says in a podcast made available by the journal Science.

There is a catch. To reprogram the adult cells into what they call "induced pluripotent cells," both research teams had to use retroviruses as vectors to carry new genes into the cell nucleus. Once there, the retroviruses become part of the cell's genetic code. These retroviruses could cause deadly mutations or cancers in patients treated with the newly created stem cells.

"It is important to understand, however, that before the cells can be used in the clinic, additional work is required to avoid vectors that integrate into the genome, potentially introducing mutations at the insertion site," warn Yu and colleagues, in one of the two reports simultaneously announcing the results.

But both research teams are highly optimistic that science soon will leap this hurdle.

"Once the safety issue is overcome, human-induced pluripotent cells should be applicable in regenerative medicine," Kyoto University researcher Kazutoshi Takahashi and colleagues note in their report.

Until that breakthrough occurs, the stem cells will be of enormous value in drug development and in understanding human disease.

Not True Embryonic Stem Cells

Both research teams note that the induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are not exactly the same as embryonic stem cells. Precisely how different they are remains a question. Regardless of the difference, the finding may represent a breakthrough in the ethical debate over the use of embryonic stem cells, says medical ethicist R. Alta Charo, JD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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