Cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and dementia are examples of illnesses that plague our society, and that have not yet been beaten. However, new incredible results may be bringing us a step closer to make those diseases history. And the only requirements are a normal cell and an acid bath.
This sounds strange, but scientists at Harvard Medical School have managed to convert a normal cell, a white blood cell, for example, into a pluripotent cell. That is, a cell that has the ability to form any type of cell. You can imagine what the consequences of such type of cell are: you can make any type of tissue out of these, so basically heal or reconstruct any part of your body. So if you have a cancer, you can just add these cells and they will grow into healthy ones.
Previously, this type of cells was only available through two ways: by extracting them from an embryo, which meant killing it (called Embryonic Stem Cells), or by changing the genes in a normal cell (called Induced Pluripotent Cells). But both have strong disadvantages. Killing a possible human being is not ethical, and Induced cells have a higher chance of causing cancer, since manipulating DNA is not safe and can be unpredictable.
These problems have caused many scientists to look for alternatives, and they may have found it. Charles Vacanti and his team at Harvard reproduced a group of mice, and extracted a white blood cell from them (although it works with any type of cell). It was modified so they reacted by fluorescence to the presence of Oct-4, a protein only found in pluripotent cells. Then, they were dipped in differ
ent solutions, and its effects were investigated. At first, the usual: some cells died, others remained unchanged. But in the second day, some cells that were introduced in an acidic solution of pH 5.7 for 30 minutes started glowing. After a few more days, more of them were glowing. Therefore, they had become pluripotent.
The intriguing cells were thereby named “Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency” or STAP for short.
To test them even more, they were injected into a blastocyst (a group of cells formed by a fertilized egg cell reproducing, that contains pluripotent cells and that if left to grow and implanted onto a uterus can form a living being). The STAP cells integrated themselves perfectly, and ended up forming a new mice individual. This mouse also had children, who still had the STAP marked cells in them.
For further testing, specialized cells from an adult mouse were extracted, and incredibly, they behaved just like the younger ones did.
This method has called a lot of attention from the scientific community, since it’s the safest and fastest way to produce stem cells. It doesn’t murder any human being, only takes a few days (Induced Pluripotent cells take weeks) and chances of cancer are the same as a normal cell. Their most surprising feature, however, is the method of production. You only need to add any normal cell, no matter its age, to a slightly acidic solution, and you can reverse it into its primary state. The simplicity is outstanding, and is very cost-effective.
At the moment, its use in humans is being studied, so it will still be a few years until it can be used properly on the mainstream population. But hope remains that one day it will be able to solve the worst diseases we battle.
A Small Ethical Side Note
After the cells have been made pluripotent, they are manipulated, by adding them to a medium, so they specialize into any cell. But in some mediums, these STAP cells were also able to act as totipotent cells; cells that have the ability to become any cell and also divide into a human being. Of course, this is were science gets very ethical, because this potency gives them the ability to form perfect clones, something never seen before, since experiments such as Dolly the Sheep used other cloning methods which are not as exact. It is not legal to clone a human being, and cloning of other animals is regulated, so any tests on this area are very supervised.