Rethinking Healthcare

Cellular time travel? Adult cells re-programmed as stem cells

Cellular time travel? Adult cells re-programmed as stem cells

Posting in Cancer

Scientists turn back the clock to restore cells to their embryonic state.

New research from Johns Hopkins University scientists could render the embryonic stem cell debate null, by creating stem cell-like cells from adult ones.

Instead of using stem cells harvested from embryos, the new technique re-programs adult blood cells to enter an embryonic state, where they can become any type of cell in the body.

Here's how the John Hopkins team did it:

  • they take blood cells from adult spinal cord, bone marrow, or circulating blood, and treat them with growth factors
  • they transfer four genes into the cells using plasmids (a DNA molecule that is independent of chromosomal DNA)
  • they give the cells an electrical pulse to create tiny holes in their surface through which the plasmids can enter
  • the plasmids trigger the cells to revert to a more primitive, embryo-like cell state

This technique is especially innovative in its virus-free approach, says a Johns Hopkins press release:

Traditionally, scientists use viruses to deliver a package of genes to cells to turn on processes that convert the cells from one type (such as skin or blood) back to stem cell states. However, viruses used in this way can mutate genes and initiate cancers in newly transformed cells. To insert the genes without using a virus, [the] team uses plasmids, rings of DNA that replicate briefly inside cells and then degrade. The blood cells were also given an additional new step in which they were stimulated with their natural bone-marrow environment.

The scientists are still studying whether the engineered cells can be converted to other cell types as efficiently as embryonic stem cells, but they're optimistic about the insight this work has given them into cellular processes.

“Taking a cell from an adult and converting it all the way back to the way it was when that person was a 6-day-old embryo," said one of the researchers in a press release, "creates a completely new biology toward our understanding of how cells age and what happens when things go wrong, as in cancer development.”

Photo: Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure