November 8, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Cells Can Be Transformed

An astonishing feat has been performed in a Canadian lab: scientists turned human skin cells into blood cells.  Bypassing the need for stem cells, the technique provides hope for a supply of blood from a person’s own skin.
Live Science calls it a “modern miracle.”  The technique avoids “the ethical concerns concerning embryonic stem cells and the immune system complications that might reject foreign biological material.”  Reprogrammed adult stem cells were tried, but they are difficult to make in quantity and cannot be transplanted.  Bypassing the stem cell stage, the team at McMaster University found they can create larger quantities of blood cells.  They also found that the technique works with skin from young and old individuals.
    Does this open the door for creating other types of cells by this method?  “We’ll now go on to work on developing other types of human cell types from skin, as we already have encouraging evidence,” said Mike Bhatia, a lead study author and scientific director of the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at the University.  Science Daily added that this method offers hope also for cancer patients, who in the future may no longer need to find bone marrow transplants that are a perfect match.
    Cynthia Dunbar at the National Institutes of Health said, “Bhatia’s approach detours around the pluripotent stem cell stage and thus avoids many safety issues, increases efficiency, and also has the major benefit of producing adult-type l blood cells instead of fetal blood cells, a major advantage compared to the thus far disappointing attempts to produce blood cells from human ESCs [embryonic stem cells] or IPSCs [induced pluripotent stem cells].”
    In another cell story, Science Daily reported that researchers at Johns Hopkins found “a protein mechanism that coordinates and regulates the dynamics of shape change necessary for division of a single cell into two daughter cells.”  A protein designated 14-3-3 “sits at an intersection where it integrates converging signals from within the cell and cues cell shape change and, ultimately, the splitting that allows for normal and abnormal cell growth, such as in tumors.”  This controller protein influences the actions of molecular motors: “myosin II, a complex of motor proteins that monitors and smoothes out the shape changes to ensure accurate division.”

This very welcoming news about blood cells from skin has the potential of being called a breakthrough of the year (or decade).  It is important not only for the tremendous health benefits it can offer, but for showing that ethically-clouded practices like the use of human embryos are not needed or justified.  Even more amazing are the insights this technique will provide into the workings of the cell – insights that required no help from Darwin – that promise even more health benefits in coming years.  People who care about the value of human life will also welcome this finding that may take some of the pressure off the stem cell gold rush.

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