Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Newsy: Scientists Make Stem Cell Breakthrough

A new technique makes the practice of turning adult skin cells into stem cells much faster and more efficient.

A new development in stem cell research has the potential to make creating stem cells much easier. Scientists are now able to quickly and reliably create stem cells from adult skin cells.

Fox News correspondent Molly Line explains: “It was discovered a couple of years ago, about four years ago, that you could take ordinary cells and turn them into these more powerful stem cells. But there was a catch: the method used genes and viruses that could ultimately lead to cancer.

This new method, developed by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, uses a synthetic molecule that acts as a messenger, and the end result not only more closely resembles embryonic stem cells but reduces that risk of cancer.”

The new technique uses messenger RNA to coax a cell to create a handful of specific proteins. These proteins then transform the cell into something a lot like an embryonic stem cell. The technique was surprisingly successful: the cells were converted in half the time and 40 to 100 times more efficiently than with older techniques.

The breakthrough has opponents of embryonic stem cell research saying destroying embryos is no longer necessary. David Stevens of the Christian Medical and Dental Association told the Washington Times: "I think this is a stunning development. ... People have been saying we have to use embryonic stem cells because we don't have an alternative. Well, now we have an alternative."

But Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, says abandoning the use of embryos would be premature. The Boston Globe quotes Melton: "Does this mean we're done with human embryonic stem cells? I think all of us would like to find the day, as soon as possible. ... Our goal is to make cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells. ...[Lead Developer Derrick Rossi] wouldn't even know if he were getting close to the goal unless he could use embryonic stem cells as the standard."

While the new research may be big news in the debate over embryonic stem cell research, Rossi says the RNA technique could also be useful in other areas of medicine. Rossi spoke in a video produced by Children’s Hospital Boston: “In terms of therapeutics, any genetic disease that involves the mutation of a gene that doesn’t make a certain protein, we can now approach that with this technology to reintroduce that protein into those cells and reestablish proper function to those cells.”

Researchers say diseases that could be treated with the new technique include diabetes, Parkinson’s, and degenerative muscle diseases, which could be treated by inserting RNA into the cells. While inserting RNA usually makes a cell fight as though the RNA is a virus, Rossi says his lab has solved that problem, too.

Writer: Steven Sparkman

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