Leap forward in safe conversion of stem cells

In two new studies published today, researchers describe how they were able to use genetic material to transform skin cells into the biological equivalent of embryonic stem cells. While such conversions have occurred before, researchers had to rely on a genetically re-engineered virus to spark the change. That approach raised the risk that the converted stem cells could cause cancer. This new approach marks a big step forward to the day when skin cells can be used as a replacement for the controversial ESCs.

"We expect this to have a massive impact on this field," Mount Sinai Hospital's Andras Nagy tells the Washington Post.

Nagy and his team relied on a DNA sequence called transposon, which can insert itself into the genetic structure of the cell. The 'piggyBac' transposon carried four genes into the cell that were responsible for the re-engineering process. After the process was complete, an enzyme was used to remove the DNA, leaving not even a trace behind.

Nagy says one of the most important consequences of the new work is that labs with no expertise in working with viruses can now jump into stem cell research, broadening the work being done and shortening the time it will take to bring new stem cell therapies into play.

The Post also notes that the advance comes at a time when a host of researchers are waiting for the new president to keep a campaign promise to loosen federal restrictions on ESC research. Some have been wondering why the Obama administration hasn't acted already.  

- read the report in the Washington Post