Could soaking a patient’s blood cells in a liquid with the acidity of vinegar be a safer and more effective way to develop stem cells for vision-restoring, retinal-disease treatments? Based on a study recently published in Nature, it might be. The research has a long way to go before it is ready for prime time — i.e., evaluation in humans — but the results thus far are intriguing.
Scientists at the RIKEN Institute in Japan generated stem cells from mature mouse cells — including those from blood, brain, muscle and fat — by placing them in an acidic solution for 30 minutes. A few days later, the stem cells were coaxed to become a variety of mature cells, including those of heart and skin. In one experiment, the scientists injected the stem cells into a blastocyst, a tiny pre-embryonic ball of cells, which produced new, healthy mice.
RIKEN scientists believe the stress caused by their approach, which they call “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP, somehow invokes a mature cell’s innate ability to turn its own clock back. Then, as a stem cell, it is a clean slate with the potential to become virtually any cell type in the body. The researchers believe the STAP process could greatly minimize the time, expense and ethical concerns in developing stem cells for therapies.
As we’ve reported here and on the Foundation Fighting Blindness website, scientists, including those funded by FFB, have already developed safe and effective ways to obtain stem cells suitable for use in human studies.
For example, they can be derived from embryos, which have thus far performed well in clinical trials, but may, however, raise ethical concerns for some people.
Scientists are also making stem cells from a patient’s skin or blood cells by treating them with transcription factors — proteins that alter their genetic activity, reverting them back to a stem-cell state. Known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSC, these cells aren’t ethically problematic, but scientists must be careful to minimize unintended and potentially harmful genetic changes resulting from the inducement process.
While STAP stem cells may, at some point, play an important role in fighting blindness, we have to be cautious about gauging their usefulness until researchers derive them from human cells and successfully replicate the STAP process in other research labs. Scientists also need to ensure that the resulting stem cells are, in fact, safe and don’t develop into the types of cells we don’t want — namely, cancer.
Of course, we at the Foundation want as many options as possible for making new photoreceptors and other retinal cells. STAP stem cells are potentially one more alternative that could reach the clinic.
Whether STAP stem cells become a therapeutic reality, there’s a lot of great stem cell research underway for saving and restoring vision. Listed below are articles covering a few examples of those promising efforts:
Pictured, above: stem cell cultures, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health.