Human Skin Cells Given Stem Cell Properties

Amitabh Avasthi
for National Geographic News
November 20, 2007
Two teams of scientists have given human skin cells many of the properties of embryonic stem cells—a development that could ease political, ethical, and medical concerns over the highly controversial research topic.

Like embryonic stem cells, the new cells—known as induced pluripotent cells—are capable of developing into most types of cells in the body. But the new lines can be created without the use of an embryo.

Such cells could conceivably also be custom-made for any adult, sidestepping issues of cell rejection.

"The advantage of using [such] reprogrammed skin cells is that any cells developed for therapeutic purposes can be customized to the patient," James Thompson, who led one of the studies, said in a prepared statement.

"They are probably more clinically relevant than embryonic stem cells," added Thompson, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Embryonic stem cell work has long been mired in controversy. Such cells may lead to medical treatments such as tissue and organ replacement, but harvesting the cells typically requires the destruction of an embryo.

Since 2001 the United States government has restricted public funding to a limited number of embryonic stem cell lines, a move many U.S. scientists say has stifled their work.

Reprogramming Cells

The race to create induced pluripotent cells in humans began last year, when scientists at Kyoto University in Japan announced they had inserted genes into cells from the tails of mice and reprogrammed them into cells with properties of embryonic stem cells. (Related: "Mouse Testicles Yield Promising Stem Cells" [March 24, 2006].)

Thompson and his colleagues today announced they had finally translated the research to humans by using viruses to ferry four genes—OCT4, SOX2, NANOG, and LIN28—into skin cells. The full findings appear in this week's issue of the journal Science.

In a second study, appearing today in the journal Cell, the Kyoto team announced that they have also given human cells taken from skin and connective tissues stem cell properties.

Using the same technique as that of Thompson but with a slightly different combination of genes, the Japanese researchers report they were able to reprogram 10 cells out of every 50,000.

The Wisconsin team got one pluripotent cell for every 10,000 cells.

"We should now be able to generate patient- and disease-specific [induced pluripotent stem] cells and then make various cells, such as cardiac cells, liver cells, and neural cells," team leader Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University said in a statement.

Good Alternative

Sidney Golub chairs the Human Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee at the University of California, Irvine.

In addition to alleviating concerns over embryonic stem cells, the new techniques may reduce the need to carry out somatic cell nuclear transfer, a controversial technique that uses harvested eggs to clone cells, he said.

Such a procedure is used to create animal clones, such as Dolly the sheep, and is being explored as a way to create human stem cell lines.

"This approach, if generally applicable, may be a good alternative to somatic cell nuclear transfer," he said. "If it turns out to be a good alternative, obtaining donated human oocytes [eggs] may be less important for research progress."

The advance, if it proves generally applicable, will allow the creation of cell lines that are genetically identical to an individual needing stem cell therapy, added Timothy Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.

This would eliminate the possibility of tissue rejection, one of several barriers still impeding the development of stem-cell-based medical treatments.

Caulfield said that the findings hold "tremendous amount of potential, but [applications] could be years and years away.

"There are many other issues to consider," he added. "If these cells are truly pluripotent, could they form eggs and sperm? If so, what then?"

Funding Snag

The effect of the findings on federal funding is also debatable.

"It is not clear if this work would be eligible for federal funding under the restrictions put in place by President Bush in 2001, as the genes that were transferred were obtained from embryonic stem cells," UC Irvine's Golub said.

"Even if this work was eligible, President Bush's recent veto of the bill containing the NIH appropriation means that little new federal funding will be available for any new research developments," he added.

Caulfield also suggested that the research has a significant downside, because the pluripotent cells are not true stem cells and no one yet knows the true extent of their abilities.

"For those who want to receive federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, it could be a blow," he said.

"This will allow those against the research, particularly politicians, to say that embryonic stem cell work is no longer necessary, so there is no need for federal funds. This, in my view, is a mistake."

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