Oregon Health and Science University have made an unprecedented breakthrough. Their researchers have managed, for the first time successfully, to convert human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, it was announced on Wednesday. The pertinent discovery is the first time human stem cells have been produced via nuclear transfer, following examples of unsuccessful attempts by research groups worldwide
Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Professor in the Division of Reproductive & Developmental Sciences at ONPRC, Oregon Stem Cell Center and OHSU School of Medicine departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Molecular & Medical Genetics. Ph.D., also senior scientist at ONPRC (National Primate Research Centres), led the breakthrough, and it follows previous success like transforming monkey skin cells into embryonic stem cells in 2007.
“A thorough examination of the stem cells derived through this technique demonstrated their ability to convert just like normal embryonic stem cells, into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells. Furthermore, because these reprogrammed cells can be generated with nuclear genetic material from a patient, there is no concern of transplant rejection,” explained Dr. Mitalipov. “While there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective stem cell treatments, we believe this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine.”
OHSU associate professor, Paula Amato, has reiterated those claims, saying that researchers have reprogrammed the cells so they’re capable of transforming into any other cell type in the body.
Egg cell nucleus extracted and in pipette.
“So for example if somebody has had a heart attack and has damaged heart cells. You could theoretically develop heart cells from these stem cells that are genetically identical to the patient with the heart disease. And then potentially inject or implant those cells into the heart muscle to replace the damaged cells,” Amato says.
Donor egg held by pipette prior to nuclear extraction.
A paramount moment in their breakthrough was finding a way to prompt egg cells to stay in a state called “metaphase” during the nuclear transfer process. Metaphase is a second stage of cell division during which the chromosomes become attached to the spindle fiber – a natural division process when genetic material aligns in the middle of the cell before the cell divides. When the research team discovered that chemically maintaining metaphase whilst undergoing the transfer process prevented the process from stalling, they were able to allow the cells to develop and produce stem cells.
It is believed that stem cell therapies are the key factor in replacing cells damaged through injury or illness. In fact, diseases and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cardiac disease and spinal cord injuries may yet be treatable by stem cell therapy.
“This is a remarkable accomplishment by the Mitalipov lab that will fuel the development of stem cell therapies to combat several diseases and conditions for which there are currently no treatments or cures,” said Dr. Dan Dorsa, Ph.D., OHSU Vice President for Research. “The achievement also highlights OHSU’s deep reproductive expertise across our campuses. A key component to this success was the translation of basic science findings at the OHSU primate center paired with privately funded human cell studies.”
Whilst the research is respected, it isn’t entirely revered as in the process you have to destroy human embryos, this in turn uses cloning techniques that could eventually lead to the cloning of people. In response to those concerns, Dr Mitalipov said: “Our research is directed toward generating stem cells for use in future treatments to combat disease,” he added. “While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning.”
It is worth pointing out that every aspect of this research does not involve the use of fertilized embryos, a topic which has been difficult for the continuation of the program.
You must remember the distinction between the method of therapeutic cloning, the technique used in this instance, and reproductive cloning, the one that could be effective in reproducing humans. After several years of monkey studies that utilise somatic cell nuclear transfer have never been successful in producing monkey clones. It is generally expected that this will also be the case with humans. Something else which is noteworthy is the fragility of human’s cells, as they’ve reiterated during this study, is a significant factor that would likely prevent the development of clones.
The work was done at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. This latest research will be published in the journal Cell online May 15 and in print June 6.
The human studies were funded by OHSU and a grant from Leducq Foundation. The nonhuman primate studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health.