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New Study Proposes Transforming Skin Cells into Stem Cells

October 23, 2019
Madeline Elston

An article published in Cell Stem Cell this June details a process of cell transformation that could potentially be the key to transforming skin cells into stem cells. The article titled “Direct Induction of the Three Pre-implantation Blastocyst Cell Types from Fibroblasts” is co-authored by 15 researchers out of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

In this article, we will explain:

  • The current definition of a stem cell
  • The findings of the study
  • The significance of the findings

What is a stem cell?

A stem cell is a cell that has not been programmed to become any specific type of tissue. According to the National Institutes of Health, a stem cell “can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions” under the right conditions. To many researchers, stem cells serve as the jumping-off point to code any sort of tissue they like. For these researchers from Hebrew University, this means coding a fully functioning human embryo out of an uncoded stem cell. The only problem is that stem cells are pretty hard to come by and often require living donors. These researchers believe they may have found another way to produce stem cells from skin cells.

Two-panel diagram entitled Why stem cells are important
Though still not incredibly prolific as a treatment option, the potential of stem cells in the future of healthcare appears promising to many doctors and researchers. Image Courtesy of European Parliament.

What are the results of the study?

It’s important to note that this article does not detail any actual experiments involving skin cells, nor does it claim to have cracked the code once and for all for stem cell production. Instead, Hana Benchetrit, et al. identify a set of genes that, when manipulated in the early embryo, transform into the three main types of embryonic tissue. As ScienceDaily reports, researchers at HU “found a new combination of five genes that, when inserted into skin cells, reprogram the cells into each of three early embryonic cell types.”

Labeled scientific diagram entitled Somatic Nuclear Reprogramming, shows fibroblasts transforming into various stem cells
A skin cell, here labeled as a ‘fibroblast’ is shown transforming into various kinds of stem cells. This graphic was included in the original publishing of HU’s article in Cell Stem Cell. Image courtesy of ScienceDirect

Why is this finding important?

Deeper research into stem cells brings scientists closer to a full understanding of their regenerative abilities and uses. The National Institutes of Health claims stem cells can be used to create new treatments for diabetes and heart disease.The researchers who just published this report believe it may soon be possible to experimentally transform skin cells into stem cells using the genes newly discovered. ScienceDaily believes that, one day soon, “it may be possible to create entire human embryos out of human skin cells, without the need for sperm or eggs.”

This research is just in its infancy. As years and decades progress, we’ll hopefully see more studies along this concept that will yield substantial gains for stem cell creation. A new, easier method of developing stem cells could be the next step toward using these cells for revolutionary healthcare treatments.


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