Once an intricate and complex process, scientists have found a surprisingly simple way of making stem cells. Stem cells are fundamentally different from other types of cells in that they are essentially “blank slates” which can transform into organ-specific cells with a singular function, such as a muscle cell, blood cell, or brain cell. (Still no word on whether or not they can be transformed into a copy of The Cell (2000), starring Jennifer Lopez.)
Until now, stem cells had to be acquired by either extracting them from embryos, moving an adult cell’s nucleus into an egg cell, or introducing viruses to a cell that cause it to revert to a embryonic-like state. Scientists have now found that simply exposing adult cells to a liquid of just the right acidity or squeezing them through a tight enough tube causes them to morph (or revert, really) into stem cells.
The video below shows a mouse embryo. The mouse’s beating heart was created from adult mouse blood cells which were “stressed” into becoming stem cells. These stem cells were manipulated into forming heart cells.
“It’s fascinating. It’s perplexing. It’s potentially profound, but leaves lots of reasons to scratch my head,” says George Daley, the director of stem cell transplantation at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
This counterintuitively simple method of creating stem cells may have never been discovered if not for the dedication of Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Vacanti is best known for the his contribution to the “earmouse”, the famous tissue engineering feat in which a human ear was grown on the back of a mouse. (This accomplishment was far more revered than attempts to grow a mouse on the back of somebody’s ear.) Vacanti originally attempted to isolate stem cells in tissue samples by exposing them to stresses; What he eventually found was that he was not isolating existing stem cells from the tissue, but rather creating them. Vacanti gives much of the credit here to the physiology of the animal body, positing that the stress tests may simply be uncovering a long-standing method by which the body heals and repairs itself. Other researchers are unsure that this process would ever occur naturally. The tests have only been conducted on mice, but if this method winds up working on human stem cells, it could mean an easy way to engineer replacement cells for diseased tissue, and could possibly be utilized in fertility treatments.
Could this research provide insight on the development of cancer cells? If we’re ever able to build fetuses from these re-programmed cells, will we have a new round of debates on reproductive ethics? Could we eventually use stem cells to create cooler versions of ourselves? (Not picturing myself with super powers, maybe just a cool leather jacket and sunglasses.) Speculate below.