Researchers in Kobe, Japan and Boston have made the biggest breakthrough in stem cells yet, producing "embryonic-like" stem cells from mice by exposing differentiated cells to the stress of an acid bath. Previous methods of producing embryonic stem cells required complex genetic engineering or tedious cell sorting. This new technique simply involves bathing blood cells in a weakly acidic solution for half an hour.
The result was so surprisingly that at researcher who discovered it, the young Haruko Obokata at the Riken Institute for Developmental Biology in Kobe, didn't believe it at first. Neither did her colleagues. “I was really surprised the first time I saw [the stem cells]… Everyone said it was an artifact – there were some really hard days,” Dr. Obokata said. The new cells have been dubbed STAP cells by the researchers.
Proposals involving embryonic stem cells are one of the basic building blocks of the field of regenerative medicine. The cells made by Dr. Obakata were shown to be capable of differentiating into dozens of specialized cells, from cardiac-muscle cells to nerve cells. Though the results were obtained with mice, it experiments with human cells are already underway and may already be successful.
A simple and cheap process to produce embryo-like stem cells from blood cells rather than human embryos leapfrogs most of the ethical qualms which made these cells such a focus of controversy in the early 2000s. Prominent Republicans such as John McCain have already come forward in favor of stem cell research.
This stem cell breakthrough is so huge because of its ease. The process is so simple that it can be carried out in a lab without any special knowledge or equipment. It seems likely that the process will be duplicated in DIY garage bio-labs across the country. With the technique becoming so easy, regulation or ethical restriction becomes much more difficult, if not completely impossible.
Experts foresee embryonic stem cells being used to manufacture replacement organs and tissue for use in regenerative medicine therapy. Livers have already been grown from mouse stem cells. Scientists have already made lab-grown tear ducts, windpipes, and arteries. Dr. Obokata said that finding will open possibilities in "the study of cell senescence [aging] and cancer as well. "
Imagine a world where people can be saved from what are currently fatal heart attacks by receiving a transplanted heart grown from their own stem cells. With this game-changing advance, that world might not be far off.