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Astounding. Remarkable. Revolutionary.
Those are some of the ways scientists are describing the news that researchers at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and in Japan have found a relatively simple way to create embryonic stem cells without using embryos.
Their method is detailed in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and when WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with the study's lead author, the Brigham's Dr. Charles Vacanti, he described his reaction to his team's surprising discovery.
Dr. Charles Vacanti: I was delighted and relieved. We actually have been working on this concept for almost a decade, and in our minds we were sure that we were correct. We've been trying to prove it scientifically, so I would say that I was more relieved than anything else.
Sacha Pfeiffer: What you've done, as I understand it, is that rather than genetically manipulating a cell, you basically stressed it. You put it under some kind of environmental stress. Could you explain what you did and what the result was?
The premise was that when you injure yourself — if you have a normal injury, you're walking down the street, you bump your leg, you have a burn injury, a chemical injury — the premise was that perhaps, rather than stem cells existing in the tissue doing the repair, perhaps the mature cells are now in an environment, a very stressful environment, that causes them to revert back to stem cells that then do the repair.
And they could regenerate and become a new type of tissue, like if you had lost some portion of your tissue?
Yes, so the cells in the tissue — maybe a muscle cell, a nerve cell — actually revert back to a very immature cell, like a baby cell, that now can turn into anything.
So you did something in your lab involving adult blood cells that you were able to get to turn into or revert into embryonic cells?
This is correct. So what we thought we would do is see if we could take known mature cells — so we took blood cells, in this case lymphocytes — and expose them to the same type of environment that injured tissue would see, and see if that caused them to revert back to stem cells, or embryonic stem cells, which could then turn into any type of cell.
You put them in an acid bath? That was the environmental stress?
That was one was one of them. We actually put them in several different environmental stresses.
And it got the intended result of turning those adult blood cells into the equivalent of embryonic cells?
As stage one, yes, the adult stem cells became immature. But they were not perfect embryonic stem cells. And then when we added another nutrient to the media, that pushed them all the way back to embryonic stem cells.
The advantage of a true embryonic stem cell, if we can call it that, is that it can develop into any other kind of cell in the body. So what do you think is the potential, then, of these induced embryonic stem cells that you've created?
The main advantage of doing your own embryonic stem cells is that they are you. So you are using cells to start with now that cannot be rejected. They will not be rejected. They are your cells. And then the other side advantage is, or the big advantage is, you do not need to create an embryo. So in order to study embryonic stem cells, one has believed you needed to create an embryo, and then you need to destroy this embryo. That's very controversial.
Of course, the religious and ethical...
Many concerns. So if you can take mature cells and make them become embryonic stem cells without becoming an embryo, you've skipped all that controversy.
Is this also a cheaper and faster method?
This can be reproduced, I think, very easily in a good college biology laboratory. So it's very easy to do. You can produce these cells consistently, in a very short period of time, in very high numbers.
So huge potential. Now, this has only happened so far in mice and maybe another type of animal? Has it happened yet in humans? Are you working on it in humans?
We have thus far only reported it in mice. We've done some preliminary work in several species, including humans, and the cells appear to develop exactly in the same fashion as they did in our mice studies.
What you've done has been described by some scientists as what sounds quite simple — so simple that some people seem surprised it didn't happen before. Now, I'm sure that understates to some degree how complex this is. But does it surprise you that something that seems relatively simple created this seemingly amazing result?
This is the most surprising part. Our greatest concern over the years was this is so simple, why is nobody seeing this? It's too simple. And perhaps that's why we figured it out, is, I do not have PhD.
You're an anesthesiologist by training?
I'm an anesthesiologist by training. And I suppose if I had had the rigorous background as some of these fabulous scientists, I would have never considered it. I would have thought, "This is a foolish idea." But fortunately, I was foolish enough to not know it was foolish! And that's probably the only reason we explored it.
This story aired on January 29, 2014.
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