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

 

Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
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

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments