Stem cell breakthrough: Japanese scientists discover way to create 'embryonic-like' cells without the ethical dilemma

Experts say the ground-breaking discovery could pave way for routine use of stem cells in medicine

Science Editor

A new way of creating stem cells that is cheaper, faster and more efficient than before could transform the ability of scientists to develop "personalised medicine" where a patient’s own healthy skin or blood cells can be used to repair damaged tissues, such as heart disease or brain injury.

Japanese scientists announced today that they had created stem cells – which are essential for bodily repair – by simply bathing blood cells in a weakly acidic solution for half an hour, triggering a remarkable reversion to the cells’ original embryonic state.

Researchers in Britain said they were astonished by the ease with which their colleagues in Japan had created embryonic-like stem cells with the ability to develop into any of the dozens of highly specialised cells of the body, ranging from cardiac-muscle cells to the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord.

It opens up the prospect of doctors taking small samples of skin or blood from a patient and using the tissue to create stem cells that could be injected back into the same patient as part of a "self-repair" kit to mend damaged organs without the risk of tissue rejection.

The stunning breakthrough was even more striking in that it was made by a young Japanese researcher called Haruko Obokata of the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe who could not at first believe her own results – and when she did finally believe them she found it just as difficult to persuade her colleagues that they were not a mistake

"I was really surprised the first time I saw [the stem cells]… Everyone said it was an artifact – there were some really hard days," Dr Obokata said. Although the research was carried out on mouse cells, it should also work with human cells, she said.

"It’s exciting to think of the new possibilities this finding provides us not only in areas like regenerative medicine but perhaps in the study of cell senescence [ageing] and cancer as well. As regards human cells, that project is underway," she added.

Previously, stem cells with the ability to develop into any specialised tissue – a phenomenon called pluripotency – could only be created either by extracting them from early embryos or by genetically manipulating adult cells to create so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

However, creating and destroying human embryos raises ethical questions for many people and is fraught with practical difficulties, while using iPS cells in human medicine is raises safety concerns about using genetically modified cells. Both techniques are also costly, inefficient and time-consuming.

The new approach, based simply on bathing blood or skin cells in a weak solution of citric acid for 30 minutes, is not only much quicker and cheaper than the previous two techniques, it is also so simple that it could be carried out in labs without any particularly specialised knowledge or equipment.

To test that the cells were truly pluripotent, Dr Obokata and her colleagues labelled them with a green fluorescent gene, injected them into early mouse embryos and found that they colonised every tissue of the developing foetus, even its umbilical cord – which does not happen with classical embryonic stem cells and iPS cells.

The Japanese scientists, who collaborated with Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School in Boston, said that in addition to blood cells, they have also created stem cells from the brain, skin, muscle, fat, bone-marrow, lung and liver tissues of newborn mice. They have called the technique stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) and believe there may be other ways of “ shocking” adult cells to revert to their embryonic condition other than bathing them in a weak acid solution.

Professor Vacanti said: "It may not be necessary to create an embryo to acquire embryonic stem cells. Our research findings demonstrate that creation of an autologous pluripotent stem cell – a stem cell from an individual that has the potential to be used for therapeutic purpose – without an embryo, is possible."

Scientists in Britain said the findings were extraordinary and unexpected. The results rewrite the rulebook on how the specialised cells of the mammalian body are meant to behave once they have travelled down what was thought to be the one-way street of cell differentiation, they said.

"Obakata’s approach in the mouse is the most simple, lowest cost and quickest method to generate pluripotent cells from mature cells," said Professor Chris Mason, an expert in regenerative medicine at University College London.

"If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient’s own cells as starting material – the age of personalised medicine would have finally arrived," Professor Mason said.

"Who would have thought that to reprogram adult cells to an embryonic stem cell-like (pluripotent) state just required a small amount of acid for less than half an hour? An incredible discovery," he added.

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem cell biology at the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research in north London, said: "It is going to be a while before the nature of these cells are understood, and whether they might prove to be useful for developing therapies, but the really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH [acidic] shock triggers reprogramming. And why it does not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar or drink cola?"


Watch professor Chris Mason from UCL discuss the revolutionary new approach

 

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Permanent post for a Key stag...

Geography Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Geography Teacher urgently ...

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering