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Scientists create stem cells by traumatizing adult cells

Scientists create stem cells by traumatizing adult cells

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human embryonic stem cell (wikimedia)
human embryonic stem cell (wikimedia)

Creating stem cells is becoming easier than ever thanks to a new technique being developed by researchers in Boston and Japan. The technique allows for the creation of embryonic-style stem cells by doing little more than applying stress to existing adult cells. Like other stem cells, this new type is incredibly malleable and can be transformed into almost any other cell type, but their simple creation is said to make them a faster option — and their creation could potentially lead to a new understanding of how cells work.

"It could open up a wide range of possibilities for new research."

The research, which comes from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, is being published today in the journal Nature. So far, the research has only been performed in mice, and researchers say the next step is to see if this technique can create stem cells in more complicated mammals, eventually leading up to humans.

Researchers have named the new technique stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). STAP cells begin as mature adult cells and are then briefly introduced to severe trauma — be it acidic conditions or oxygen starvation — until they near the point of death. While only a fraction of the cells survive, the researchers found that those that made it through would recover within a few days by reverting to a state similar to an embryonic stem cell.

Though a separate group of researchers previously developed a technique to create stem cells out of adult cells by introducing them to outside DNA, it's largely been thought that once a cell had matured, it was stuck there. But this research shows that may not be the case. The researchers suggest that cells' reversion into malleable stem cells could be a type of safety response. "Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation," Charles Vacanti, a senior author of the paper, says in a statement.

Potentially the simplest way to acquire stem cells

That alone leaves plenty for researchers to study. But the ability to easily create stem cells would also be a huge boon: if it works in humans, it could allow researchers to avoid dealing with the controversy around embryonic stem cells and the difficulty and limitations of using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are created by mixing outside DNA into an adult cell.

"If we can work out the mechanisms by which differentiation states are maintained and lost, it could open up a wide range of possibilities for new research and applications using living cells," Haruko Obokata, the paper's lead author, says in a statement. If the process can be repeated in humans, researchers may eventually be able to recreate any given person's stem cells just by introducing a blood sample to stress — potentially starting researchers down the road to recreating an individual's tissue to help them recover from illness or injury.