Some progress has been made in learning how to reprogram adult cells back into a “pluripotent” stage (capable of becoming multiple types of cells). Unfortunately, current techniques have not been able to produce pluripotent cells with virtually all of the properties of true stem cells.
Now, researchers in Japan and at Harvard University may have achieved a breakthrough of sorts. The researchers had been exploring ways to make adult cells revert to a pluripotent state closer to true embryonic stem cells. In a paper just published in Nature, the researchers exposed adult cells from mice to the stress of a solution with a high pH (a mildly acidic solution). Although many of the cells died, some of the ones that survived showed biochemical signs of having become pluripotent cells. More importantly, when the researchers injected these cells into embryonic mice, the cells grew and differentiated into virtually all types of adult cells, right along with the mice’s own cells.
It’s too soon to tell whether the technique would work with human cells. Nevertheless, the idea that exposing adult cells to a simple reproducible type of stress in the laboratory could cause them to revert to a pluripotent state very similar to embryonic stem cells is an exciting new concept. The day may yet come when human embryos are no longer needed as a source of stem cells. And that would definitely be a good thing.