Stem cells are one of the most exciting areas of modern research. Their unique characteristics mean that scientists can use them to create any type of human cell in vitro. Embryonic stem cells are also key tools for future studies on diseases like Parkinson’s. But so far, the only way to obtain them is to destroy an embryo, which is an ethically debatable procedure.
But now scientists from the European project Plurigenes – involving 7 European labs – are researching a new way of transforming ordinary adult cells into embryonic stem cells. It is a revolutionary idea which could lead to new research into therapeutic uses for stem cells.
The first step was the study of cell evolution in zebra fish. Using a newly-developed microscope, scientists observed the first 24 hours in the life of a zebra fish from the single cell stage up to 20,000 cells.
Says Jean Stephane Joly, the Scientific Coordinator of the Plurigenes project: “Why use this small fish? Because those fish are very simple to use and very simple and transparent. We can easily see those cells and follow their movement, their division.”
After this in-depth study, Plurigenes project scientists identified a key gene in the cells. They realised that – by suppressing this gene – cells return to their embryonic stem cell state. Here for example, normal skin cells have been reprogrammed to return to their embryonic state.
Says Angelo Vescovi, from the Department of Biotechnology and Biosciences of Milan and the Plurigenes Project: “That cell will come from your skin cell, and will be reprogrammed to make any kind of cells of your body. If you were to use those cells for transplantation in your body, those are your cells, so there would be no rejection.”
Thanks to these advances, clinical trials will soon begin in Italy, working with patients suffering from brain diseases which up until now have been incurable.