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'Ethical' stem cell crop boosted

BBC News, October 18, 2009

Embryonic stem cells have attracted tremendous attention based on their ability to become any of the 220 types of cell in the human body. Ethical issues, as well as the problem of cancer formation, have impeded their practical utilization. Recently scientists have been creating embryonic-like stem cells by inserting specific genes into skin cells so as to "reverse their age" and create cells that in many ways resemble embryonic stem cells. These cells are called inducible pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.

This approach is highly interesting to many researchers because: 1) It allows creation of stem cells that are of the same tissue type as the patient that may in the future receive them; 2) Their generation can be performed under defined conditions. This is in contrast to many of the existing embryonic stem cell lines which have been created years ago and contain animal products or mutations; and 3) They can be made from tissues containing rare genes, so as to be able to examine the effect(s) of the gene in every cell of the body. There are still limiting factors to the use of iPS: like embryonic stem cells, they cause cancer, and they are difficult to produce.

An advancement has been made in the issue of their production. Professor Sheng Ding from the Scripps Research Institute, also one of the founders of the company Fate Therapeutics, has recently published in the journal Nature Methods that administration of three chemicals to cells undergoing the iPS process makes their generation 200 times more efficient and in double the speed. Using the previous technique only 1 in 10,000 cells would become iPS and it would take a month.

Dr. Ding stated: "Both in terms of speed and efficiency, we achieved major improvements over conventional conditions, this is the first example in human cells of how reprogramming speed can be accelerated." He continued "I believe that the field will quickly adopt this method, accelerating research significantly."

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