Stem cell discovery heralded

Canadian researchers reprogram skin cells

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Toronto researchers, led by Andras Nagy at Mount Sinai Hospital, have uncovered an alternative method for transforming human skin cells into stem cells.

Previous methods used viruses to insert genes from stem cells into mature adult skin cells, but had many negative potential side effects " including cancer.

Nagy and his team have used an innovative wrapping procedure to deliver specific genes to reprogram skill cells into stem cells. Their findings were published earlier this month by the international science journal, Nature.

The creation of these embryonic-like stem cells is important, especially since it avoids the ethical controversy surrounding using embryonic stem cells from fetuses.

“This method of generating stem cells does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues such as a patient’s own skin cells,” Nagy said in a press release.

Stem cell research holds much promise in the field of regenerative medicine.

“Stem cells are advantageous because they can grow indefinitely in culture and they can become any cell type in the body, ” David Hess, a Western professor in the department of physiology and pharmacology, said.

Stem cell research is propelled by the hope that scientists will be able to influence stem cells to differentiate into specific types of cells that will meet a patient’s needs.

“We hope that these stem cells will form the basis for treatment for many diseases and conditions that are currently considered incurable,” Nagy said.

Hess explained a patient with Parkinson’s disease would ideally be treated with stem cells differentiated into dopamine-secreting neurons.

Stem cells currently being used in Canadian research facilities are almost exclusively adult stem cells, according to Hess.

“These stem cells can be found in every tissue in the body and a good place to get them is from bone marrow,” he said.

“Another source of stem cells is human umbilical cord blood, which is considered an adult source of stem cells. These cells are obtained after the baby is born and no harm is done to the baby or the mother,” Hess added.

However, embryonic stem cells are still preferable to adult stem cells.

“The adult stem cells are limited in their potential to produce every cell in the body, so the embryonic stem cells, or the induced [embryonic] stem cells, represent a source of cells with greater potential to treat a variety of human diseases,” Hess said.

The discovery by Nagy and his team coincides with the reversal of legislation by U.S. President Barack Obama. Former U.S. President George W. Bush enacted legislation in 2001 that had banned federal funding on stem cell research in the United States.

During this same period, Canadian researchers have not had the same restrictions placed upon their work as their American counterparts.

Though the reversal on the ban in the United States may mean increased competition for Canadian researchers for publication from across the border, local doctors are not worried.

“Canada is well-positioned to compete in the international scientific market, so to speak, with embryonic stem cells because of the fact that we have been able to work on them productively over the past five years or so,” Hess noted.

Jim Woodgett, director of research for the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, agreed these researchers are at the forefront of stem cell research.

“This research is a huge step forward on the path to new stem cell-based therapies and indicates that researchers at the Lunenfeld are at the leading edge of regenerative medicine.”

Prior to his current discovery, Nagy had already made waves in his field by creating Canada’s first embryonic stem cell lines from donated embryos no longer needed for reproduction by couples having fertility treatment in 2005. He has been at Mount Sinai Hospital since 1994.

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