Embryonic stem cells have long been controversial, despite their potential to treat conditions such as spinal injuries and degenerative illnesses like Parkinson’s. But that could soon change, thanks to a groundbreaking experiment by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan that produced the stem cells without using an actual embryo.
Embryonic stem cells are so-called “pluripotent” cells that can morph into multiple forms. But social conservatives have raised ethical concerns over these cells’ use since they need to be harvested from an actual embryo. Stem cell research was one of the biggest culture war issues during George W. Bush’s presidency, and was banned from receiving taxpayer funding. That’s why research into embryonic stem cells has centered on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells — regular adult cells that can be forced to change their form.
As Phys.org explains, the trouble with this process is that adult or “somatic” cells, unlike embryonic stem cells, can only be converted into a limited set of other cell types by introducing foreign DNA into them. What makes the BWH/RIKEN experiment so exciting is that scientists were able to take adult stem cells from mice and “shock” them into their original state of pluripotency without involving any foreign agents or using embryonic cells.
The researchers subjected the mouse blood cells to various high-stress conditions, such as low oxygen and acidic environments. They found that the stress of this process forced the cells to revert to state similar to embryonic stem cells. The reverted cells were even able to multiply and differentiate into different cell types when introduced into other mice.
Although the researchers are unclear on why the “shock” process elicited this effect, they are hopeful that the technique could be revolutionary if it works in human cells.
“It may not be necessary to create an embryo to acquire embryonic stem cells,” wrote lead study author Dr. Charles Vacanti. “This finding has the potential to reduce the need to utilize both embryonic stem cells and DNA-manipulated iPS cells.”