A new technique for deriving human stem cells may change the course of research in the field of regenerative medicine. The announcement of the technique's success has researchers at the UW anxious to reproduce and test the methods.

When Charles Murry, professor of pathology and co-director of the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), first heard of the breakthrough earlier this month, he emailed the groups, requesting samples of the cell lines produced using the new methods.

"I've already heard from the researchers at [the University of Wisconsin]," Murry said. "They've agreed to send us the requested lines. UW investigators should be working on them in two weeks time. We'll also be using their methods to make our own cell lines."

The groups, from Wisconsin and Kyoto University in Japan, worked independently to achieve the results. Their papers, published last week, report the newly developed ability to reprogram human skin cells back to their most basic genetic shape, behaving equivalently to stem cells.

Stem cells are the most basic cells in the human body, and eventually give rise to more specific cells that form tissues. They fall into two broad categories: embryonic and adult.

Embryonic stem (ES) cells are able to become any sort of cell found in the human body. This characteristic, known as pluripotency, has garnered the attention of scientists interested in pathological and therapeutic applications.

Adult stem cells are multipotent, able to give rise to a limited number of other cell types. These cells are found in adult tissues such as bone marrow or skin. Their utility in research and therapy has previously been curbed by their multipotent quality. The latest breakthrough induces pluripotency in adult skin cells using a virus to repeatedly and randomly insert four genes into their genetic code. This creation of pluripotent stem cells is done without the use of human embryos, bypassing what has been source of ethical and political controversy in the past decade.

While the technique is demonstrably successful, it comes with caveats. A gene used by the Japanese group is known to cause cancer, raising possible issues if the gene continues to express itself after the stem cell differentiates. It is also unknown whether the new stem cells are equivalent to embryonic stem cells.

"Practically speaking, the technique is not ready for the clinic yet," said Carol Ware, director of ISCRM's stem cell tissue culture core. "These are technical issues that could be dealt with in the near future."

Anthony Blau, UW professor of hematology and co-director of ISCRM, agreed.

"Utility in therapies remains in question at this point," Blau said. "There's still a lot of reason for excitement."

Blau, Ware and Murry said that the scientific method would be the ultimate arbiter of the technique's efficacy. Now that the procedures are freely available to researchers, work will begin to reproduce and verify the reported qualities. If they are found to be robust results and refined, making cells specific to individual patients would become a possibility. This means that a patient could eventually receive therapy using cells derived from their own skin cells rather than external cell lines.

"This is an important breakthrough," Murry said. "It's not that often that a discovery comes along and changes the fundamental direction of your research."

[Reach reporter Brian Smoliak at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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