Canadian 'alchemists' turn skin into blood

There has been a great deal of excitement this week generated by a group of researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, with what is being promoted as almost a kind of alchemy--turning skin cells into blood cells.

One exuberant embryologist, Ian Wilmut, director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, UK, even went so far as to say the breakthrough "takes us a step along the line to believing that you can produce anything from almost anything."

The researchers, led by stem cell scientist Mick Bhatia, spent almost a decade using pluripotent stem cells, essentially nature's "rewind" button, and then coaxing them into turning into blood cells. This process turned out to be very inefficient. So, a couple of years ago, the team embarked on a search for the right combination of growth factors to bully the cells into submission. They took skin from adults and the discarded foreskins of newborns and found that if they bathed skin cells in a combination of four to six growth factors they could make a variety of blood cell types by turning on a single gene known as OCT 4.

Among the first beneficiaries could be leukemia patients. "If we can take skin cells from them and turn them into healthy blood, the product could outcompete the leukemic cells," Bhatia told the Guardian.

Over at Slashdot, readers were questioning just how much of a skin graft would be needed to produce enough blood. However, the next phase of the research could make that a moot point. They're attempting to grow patients' cells in the lab before converting them into blood cells. So, no large skin grafts would be necessary.

- read the report in Nature News
- and the LA Times
- and the Guardian
- see the discussion on Slashdot
- take a look at the abstract in Nature