Skin Game

Skin to Stem Cell Breakthrough Promises Health Care Revolution

Jason Burnett and his 10-year-old son Andrew, both born with a genetic defect, have been recruited into an experiment designed to transform bits of their skin into stem cells that may someday hold the key to a cure.

The Burnetts inherited a heart disease that leaves the father exhausted after a short walk. The two are among the first patients working with scientists who are using a new stem-cell technique that may someday revolutionize care for disorders as diverse as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy.

Discovered by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, the method creates stem cells without using and destroying human embryos. By studying cells created from people with inherited disorders, scientists are observing, in ways never before possible, how diseases progress and react to treatments, said Doug Melton, a Harvard University researcher.

“This is the breakthrough the stem-cell field has been waiting for,” said Beth Seidenberg, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Menlo Park, California-based venture-capital firm that helped start Google Inc.

Unlike embryonic cells, the cells created using the Yamanaka method opened a path to test drugs for genetic diseases, Seidenberg said.

The approach used in the Burnett family study, being conducted by researchers at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco, also is being adopted by labs in the U.S., Europe and Asia and helped persuade GlaxoSmithKline Plc to invest $25 million in a joint venture with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in a laboratory in 1998, they have fired the imagination of doctors, scientists and patients, who envision a day when new tissues or body parts might be grown to replace diseased ones. The cells are pluripotent, meaning they can be turned into any other type of cell, such as those that make up skin, nerves or neurons.

Novel way to turn skin cells into stem cells

American scientists have made a significant advance in finding a way to endow human skin cells with embryonic stem cell-like properties without inserting potentially problematic new genes into their DNA.

Dr James A Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose team was supported in part by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, claims that this is the first time that any research group has endowed skin cells with the capacity to develop into any of the roughly 220 types of cells in the body – a process known as induced pluripotency – without using viruses.

He says that this work attains significance considering the fact that viruses can insert potentially harmful genes into the cells’ genetic material and trigger cancer. Thomson’s new method imports the necessary genes on a small circle of DNA known as a plasmid.

Over time, the plasmid disappears naturally from the cell population, avoiding the danger posed by using viruses. Pluripotent cells are viewed as invaluable to studies of normal and disease processes and to understanding the effects of certain drugs.

Thomson says that such cells may come to be used therapeutically in future, and replace the cells affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s or lost to traumatic injuries.

Pentagon Plans to Regrow Human Body Parts

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just given Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) a $570,000, one-year contract to get a mammal, preferably a human, to regenerate a large body part such as a finger or even a limb.

That’s Phase II of DARPA’s “Restorative Injury Repair” project, which according to the DARPA Web page “will culminate in the restoration of a functional multi-tissue structure in a mammal.”

WPI’s CellThera for-profit unit has already achieved Phase I, which according to the school’s press release “succeeded in reprogramming mouse and human skin cells to act more like stem cells, able to form the early structures needed to begin the process of re-growing lost tissues.”

“The goal is to genuinely replace a muscle that’s lost,” WPI bioengineering researcher Raymond Page told Wired News. “I appreciate that’s a very aggressive goal.”

Some salamanders can regrow lost limbs, and some lizards lost tails. But humans can generally regrow only their livers, and have to have at least one-quarter of the previous one still intact for it to happen.

See also:
Scientists find safer way to make human stem cells
Breakthrough in ‘stem cells from skin’ study
Skin Cells Converted to Stem Cells
Turning Skin Cells to Stem Cells, Without Cancer
Stem Cells: Skin Deep
DARPA funds Phase 2 of human limb regeneration study
DARPA grant supports research toward realizing tissue regeneration
DARPA Funds Bold Research on Limb Regeneration
DARPA project to regrow human tissue enters next phase
Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D
Shinya Yamanaka
Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D.
Douglas A. Melton
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
J. David Gladstone Institutes
GlaxoSmithKline plc
Harvard Stem Cell Institute
James Thomson (cell biologist)
University of Wisconsin Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Stem Cell Basics
Stem cell
Induced pluripotent stem cell
Stem Cells: A new path to pluripotency
NIH Fact Sheet on Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Guidelines

So, here we have a type of stem cells that, unlike embryonic stem cells, is safe, doesn’t cause cancer, and is actually producing real world results. Also, unlike harvesting embryonic stem cells, producing stem cells from skin is completely ethical and doesn’t require the destruction of a human embryo.

/who needs embryonic stem cells anyway?