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Adult cells reprogrammed in stem cell breakthrough

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Researchers have reprogrammed adult mouse cells inside living mice to behave like embryonic stem cells, in what scientists are claiming is a major breakthrough.

The technique, published in the journal Nature, allows researchers to reprogram cells in living mice without removing those cells from their natural environment. It is the first time this reprogramming of cells has been achieved outside of a petri dish in a laboratory.

Initial tests suggest that these cells are able to take on a wider variety of identities than those generated by earlier methods, meaning it could potentially be used to restore damaged cells or organs in the human body.

Associate Professor Andrew Laslett, the Research Group Leader of Stem Cells at Australia’s CSIRO, said the ability to change multiple different cell types in a living mouse back into IPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells), that can turn into any cell type in that mouse, or even into an entire new mouse, is unprecedented.

“This research provides a better understanding of the reprogramming process in mice, and will enable further investigations into applications targeted at treating specific diseases and injuries,” he told the Australian Science Media Centre (ASMC).

“The reprogramming method described is not suitable for use in humans, but its use for research in mice could ultimately provide information critical for the safe use of reprogramming technology in humans to address unmet healthcare needs.”

The breakthrough is a long way from being able to be applied therapeutically to humans, but doctors still welcomed the research as a great leap forward in understanding.

Professor Rob Ramsay, Head of the Cancer Cell Biology Program at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and a member of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said the technique brought great promise.

“These findings are a genuine leap forward in understanding the possibilities of reprogramming cells in many different organs in animals, bringing the promise of therapies that fundamentally alter the make-up of cells a little closer to clinical use,” he told ASMC.

“The newly published research addresses the shortcomings of IPS cells, which do not have the same range of capacities as embryonic stem cells; a point of difference for stem cell researchers and a cause of ongoing debate for ethicists.”

Professor Ramsay said the research team, led by Manuel Serrano at the Spanish National Cancer Research in Madrid, had built on the work of 2012 Nobel Prize winner Professor Shinya Yamanaka from Japan, and had been able to develop embryonic-like tumours in mice, in lots of different organs.

“Cells of these embryonic growths, teratomas, can make a vast variety of different cell types, such as muscle, bone and skin, indicating that cells from a range of organs can be ‘reprogrammed’ to revert to an embryonic state.

“Most importantly, these ‘in animal’ reprogrammed cells were more primitive than the IPS cells made using Professor Yamanaka’s test-tube method, heralding a new range of research techniques to study the development of many diseases, including cancer.”

Professor Ramsay said Australian scientists, who had been pioneers in stem cell research, would be likely to quickly incorporate these discoveries into their efforts to understand genetic-based diseases and develop new therapies.

Debra Vermeer