BIOETHICS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Medical breakthrough: researchers turn skin cells into T-cells
, June 1, 2002
While Australian scientists are attempting to pressure the Federal Government to allow them to harvest spare human IVF embryos for research, scientists at the University of Oslo have discovered a way to transform ordinary human skin cells into immune cells, potentially making even the use of adult stem cells, let alone embryo stem cells, obsolete.
Researchers, James Robl, Philippe Collas and colleagues, at the biotech start-up company, Nucleotech LLC, found that by punching tiny holes in the walls of mature skin cells and soaking them in a solution made from extracts of immune system cells, the skin cells turned them into what look like and act like T-cells, the body's key immune system cells.
This means the skin cells stopped functioning as skin cells, instead turning on genes usually active only in immune cells. It appears that the regulatory factors that made the cells originally operate as skin cells were washed out and replaced by the regulatory mechanisms that converted them into immune cells.
Instead of harnessing adult stem cells whose genes have not yet been activated, the team completely changed the cell's environment and thus changed the cell's function.
Many biotech research teams have been working on harnessing the power of adult stem cells for new medical treatments. Until now, nearly all had believed the future lay in obtaining adult stem cells, the body's master cells, which had not matured into specialised tissue or organs, and then switching them on to produce the desired tissue for particular treatments.
Adult stem cells are naturally occurring in bone marrow, blood, especially umbilical cord blood, and other tissue.
According to Robl, their discovery means that new treatments could become in principal "a one-day procedure - the patient would come in and give a skin biopsy to the lab to reprogram and the day after you could put the cells back into the patient."
Reported in Nature Biotechnology,
Collas said the production of T-cells could have immediate applications in treating cancer.
He explained that advanced cancer patients often have low T-cell counts. "If you took a skin cell from a patient and turned it into a T-cell in the presence of tumor antigens, you could expand a T-cell population that in theory would respond to the tumor."
The researchers were now looking to produce pancreatic islet cells that make insulin and are destroyed in juvenile or type-I diabetes.
Although the researchers believe their new discovery will rival other forms of both adult and embryo stem cell research, they see no ethical problems with cloning and embryo stem cell research and are opposed to any restrictions on such research.