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New Way to Make Stem Cells?

Chemicals can do the work previously handled by genes, researchers find

THURSDAY, Oct. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists say they can use chemicals to turn adult cells into patient-specific stem cells instead of relying on potentially cancer-causing genes.

U.S. researchers used chemicals to replace two of the four genes needed to turn adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are similar to embryonic stem cells.

"Stem cells have the greatest potential to dramatically change and improve the way we treat diseases," study lead author Justin K. Ichida, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said in a news release. "We're very excited about our findings because it means that in the near future we should be able to make limitless supplies of stem cells and possibly replacement cells for patients with diseases."

Previous research identified four genes that can transform adult stem cells into iPS cells. The genes are delivered via a retrovirus that integrates into a cell's DNA. However, the DNA from the virus remains in the cells and, over time, may activate cancer-causing genes.

In this study, the researchers substituted small chemical molecules for two of the genes.

"This discovery is exciting because it demonstrates the feasibility of using chemicals to make safer patient-specific stem cells for transplantation medicine," Ichida said.

"One of the most important things we learned from this study is that with respect to molecular pathways, there may be several ways to convert one type of cell into another. By using a non-biased chemical screening approach, we uncovered a previously unknown way to make stem cells. The big challenge over the next decade will be to figure out how to make the right cells for disease treatment. This approach will be important for achieving that goal."

The study, funded by the New York Stem Cell Foundation, is published online Oct. 8 and in the Nov. 6 print issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more about stem cells.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: New York Stem Cell Foundation, news release, Oct. 8, 2009

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