Scientists in Japan report a breakthrough in stem cell research in this week's edition of Nature, a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary science journal.
Calling it "a unique cellular reprogramming phenomenon," the study's authors report on the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) without nuclear transfer that they observed when shocking mouse white blood cells with acid. More plainly (and no-doubt ridiculously oversimplified), the process created artificial stem cells from adult somatic cells using acid in a simpler process than previously thought possible.
"It's exciting to think about the new possibilities these findings offer us, not only in regenerative medicine, but cancer as well," lead author Dr. Haruko Obokata said via the BBC.
As introductory biology teaches us, the human body is constructed of cells, cells designed for a specific purpose, whether they're brain cells, skin cells or blood cells. Stem cells are the utility players, retaining the ability to turn into any other kind of cell. As such, stem cells are part of invaluable research for treating, healing and curing ailments of all kinds, from a degenerative brain disorder like Alzheimer's to rampant and uncontrollable cellular growth like cancer.
The problem researchers run into is the availability of stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells, those with uninhibited potential, can be harvested from human embryos that are a few days old, according to the National Institutes of Health. Therein lies the ethical dilemma and emotionally-charged side of stem cell research. While embryonic stem cells can be used to create lines of stem cells for indefinite culturing and growth, the prospect remains controversial and objectionable among conservatives that believe life begins at conception, hence the significance of the acid procedure.
While the researchers managed this stem cell breakthrough in lab mice, research is already underway to replicate the success in human cells.
"If this works in people as well as it does in mice, it looks faster, cheaper and possibly safer than other cell reprogramming technologies - personalized reprogrammed cell therapies may now be viable," said Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, via the BBC.
Dr. Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at Kings College London, called the acid process revolutionary but warned that it would not bring the medical world closer to stem cell-based therapy.
"We will need to use the same precautions for the cells generated in this way as for the cells isolated from embryos or reprogrammed with a standard method," Ilic told BBC.
What do you think of the news of this stem cell breakthrough?