Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ethical path to artificial stem cell technology

Major developments in stem cell technology have resulted from Australian research.

Major developments in stem cell technology have resulted from Australian research. Photo: Paul Harris

Australian research has created a molecular roadmap that shows how any cell in the human body can be turned into artificial stem cells.

The roadmap, produced in collaboration with Harvard University, is a major advance in cellular reprogramming technology, which is already being exploited in pharmaceutical testing and some clinical settings overseas - but until now wasn't understood.

We're going to study your exact mutation in the dish. 

Dr Jose Polo, formerly of Harvard University and now head of Monash University's reprogramming and epigenetics laboratory, said the use of these reprogrammed cells - pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells - has practical advantages over those harvested from embryos.

''If you have a disease caused by a specific mutation, say in the brain, obviously we can't do research on your brain. But we can take a cell of your skin, reprogram it into an iPS cell, and then make neurons [brain cells] in the labs,'' Dr Polo said. ''This means we're going to study your exact mutation in the dish.''


It's an alternative to taking a brain biopsy, and more useful because biopsied cells die within a week.

These stem cells were discovered seven years ago by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka and bypass the ethical and moral dilemmas of embryonic stem cell research. The work won him a Nobel Prize.

Every cell in the human body has the same genes but they are switched on and off in various combinations, which is what differentiates them into blood or skin or heart cells.

Dr Polo's roadmap addresses concerns that cellular reprogramming is potentially booby-trapped with dangerous mutations.

''It will allow us to determine what happens inside the cells on their journey to become iPS cells.

''This, in turn, will provide the means to make the process more efficient; and will allow us to create iPS cells that are able to give rise to better quality mature cells,'' Dr Polo says.
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