U.K. researchers found a less painful way to source samples to make stem cells, using blood rather than biopsies, and their findings could pave the way to treat cardiovascular disease and rebuild patients' hearts and other organs.
The research, led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, used blood cells called late-outgrowth endothelial progenitor cells (L-EPCs) from healthy people and patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the blood vessels in the lungs) to create patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). L-EPCs normally repair damaged blood vessel walls, but once they become stem cells, they can be triggered to transform into any other type of cell in the body. The study was published in Stem Cells: Translational Medicine.
Pluripotent stem cell therapies are a buzz topic in biotech research, with their amazing potential to rebuild, repair and replace any type of tissue, from new muscle through new hearing cells to new bone, and could create a range of therapies for disorders such as diabetes, infertility and Alzheimer's disease. Scientists have previously created patient-specific pluripotent cells from patients' own skin cells. While these avoid the controversy linked with embryonic stem cells, and aren't at risk of rejection like donor cells, they still need to be grown from biopsies of skin and other tissues, which are painful and invasive. Using blood is simpler, because it is easy to sample, and blood draws are already taken routinely from patients undergoing treatment. Other advantages of using blood cells is that they can be frozen and turned into iPSCs at a later date, unlike other cells that have to be transformed as soon as they are sourced.
"It's a hell of a lot easier to get a blood sample than a high quality skin sample so that's a big benefit," says Chris Mason of University College London, U.K.
Researchers have raised concerns about iPSCs increasing cancer risk. However, these blood-based cells could be safer than those derived from skin cells, as Amer Ahmed Rana of the University of Cambridge told BBC News. "The fact that these appeared to be fairly stable is very promising," he said.
This is early research, and so it's not yet clear whether treatment with these stem cells would be safe or effective. The next step will be to carry out clinical trials, though there are likely to be a lot of challenges to overcome first. As Mason explained to BBC News, the iPSC concept is still very new, and "we need far more experience to totally reprogram a cell in a way we know to be safe."