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Stem Cell Breakthrough Reported

A team of scientists led by The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla has demonstrated a new way to reprogram cells without introducing new genes, a major advance toward the goal of one day turning an individual’s own cells into a powerful tool for combating disease.

The new technique, reported April 23 in the online edition of the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell, appears to eliminate any safety concerns associated with earlier methods.

A few years ago, a team of Japanese researchers discovered they could reprogram fully developed, or adult, stem cells into an embryonic-like state in mice.

Embryonic stem cells are considered a gold standard in the field because they have the ability to give rise to hundreds of cells in the body.

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Scientists hailed the new approach as a major advancement in the field of stem cell research. Religious groups and others with moral objections to the destruction of human embryos used in embryonic stem cell research commended the work.

While the discovery was a big breakthrough, it left scientists with some technical hurdles. Some of the mice studied developed cancerous tumors, leading researchers on another quest to develop methods that could one day prove safe in humans.

Researchers in the latest study say they’ve overcome those challenges by using cell-penetrating proteins instead of genes. While the Japanese researchers inserted four genes into the cells they wanted to reprogram, scientists with the latest study say they experimented with chemical conditions using recombinant proteins.

“Now, for the first time, we can generate such powerful, useful cells without any genetic manipulation,” said Scripps Research Associate Professor Sheng Ding, who led the research. “This will become the standard. This will replace all previous genetic methods in generating new cells.”

Larry Goldstein, head of UC San Diego’s stem cell research program, said the work shows promise in the field although researchers won’t know how reliable it is until numerous stem cell lines have been generated and tested.

“The key to it becoming a standard is that the method will be easy to use and highly reproducible in other laboratories,” he said.

The study was sponsored by Fate Therapeutics, a San Diego-based startup developing small molecule drugs to control the destiny of stem cells. Fate and Stemgent, a San Diego and Massachusetts-based provider of tools for stem cell research, said they will offer the new technology to other scientists through a newly formed program called Catalyst. Ding served as a scientific cofounder of Fate and Stemgent.

, Heather Chambers

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