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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 17:01 GMT
'This is a very exciting advance'
By Dr Lyle Armstrong
Geneticist

Fibroblast
Fibroblast skin cells were transformed by the new technology
Scientists have discovered a way to reprogramme human skin cells so that they mimic embryonic stems with the potential to become any tissue in the body.

The breakthrough promises to have signficant implications for medical research.

Scientists are very excited by the announcement of these findings, that cells that look and act like stem cells can be created from skin cells (known in science as fibroblasts).

Last year similar work was done in mice, and we were waiting with bated breath to see if it would also work in humans.

Embryonic stem cells have great potential for treating human disease because of their ability to generate almost all the cell types found in the adult body.

These stem cells are important to study many diseases, but in the future they may also be used to as a treatment in their own right.

There is potential that stem cells could help replace diseased, damaged or dying cells and contribute towards improved function of that person's organs, possibly representing a cure for the disease from which they suffered.

If there is any hope of getting to this stage, researchers have a major hurdle to get over - preventing the immune system rejecting the new cells.

The best way to prevent this is to match the stem cells to the person - in the same way as doctors match organs in transplant operations.

So researchers are looking for ways to make stem cell lines to match individual patients.

Patient specific cells

Scientists have been hoping that therapeutic cloning would hold the key to creating patient specific stem cells.

In therapeutic cloning the DNA of one of the patient¿s cells is transferred into a human (or animal) egg from which the DNA had been removed, this is tricked into dividing into an embryo that scientists extract stem cells from.

However, therapeutic cloning uses human eggs which are not readily available and the procedure is technically difficult.

Additionally, there are people who have ethical concerns about the use of embryos to create stem cells.

For all of these reasons, this research gives us some hope of finding an alternative source of embryonic stem cells.

It is important that this breakthrough should not prevent work on therapeutic cloning.

But rather we should seek to embrace both techniques.

We do not clearly understand the mechanism by which new technique works and further research is needed.


Dr Lyle Armstrong is based at the North East England Stem Cell Institute, International Centre For Life, University of Newcastle.


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