The novelist Arthur C Clarke notoriously drew up a list of three laws to explain the “science” of prediction. The third law stated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. We can be forgiven for thinking there is an element of magic behind the announcement from Japan that researchers have created stem cells – the basic tissue from which all others are made – simply by bathing a sample of blood in a weak solution of citric acid.
The Japanese scientists who made this phenomenal breakthrough were inspired by something that is familiar to every keen gardener – the ability of plants to make copies of themselves without sexual reproduction. Taking a cutting or a piece of tissue from the apex of the growing stem of a plant can be used to create an entirely new tree or shrub with all its complex parts.
It was thought until relatively recently that mammals – and humans – were very different from plants in this respect. Once an early embryo had travelled down the “one-way street” of cell differentiation to become a fully formed individual, its constituent adult cells were incapable of going into reverse and becoming embryonic again.
Dolly the cloned sheep blew away this particular shibboleth. She was cloned from the specialised skin cell of an adult ewe and yet somehow her genes had been reprogrammed to their early embryonic state – which gave rise to the idea of creating stem cells from cloned embryos.
In 2006, a separate Japanese team went one step further and reprogrammed skin cells back to their embryonic state by the addition of a handful of genes. It got round the ethical issue of using human embryos, but it raised safety concerns over using genetically modified cells in medicine.
But now we have the stunning revelation that skin or blood cells can be reprogrammed back to their embryonic state simply by bathing them for 30 minutes in weak acid. It may sound like magic, but it appears to be true. We can only hope that it can be quickly applied in medical treatments.