August 27, 2008

Groundbreaking Advance

Scientists have discovered (in mice, anyway) how to convert one fully developed Adult cell into another type of cell.

Through a series of painstaking experiments involving mice, the Harvard biologists pinpointed three crucial molecular switches that, when flipped, completely convert a common cell in the pancreas into the more precious insulin-producing ones that diabetics need to survive.

The feat, published online today by the journal Nature, raises the tantalizing prospect that patients suffering from not only diabetes but also heart disease, strokes and many other ailments could eventually have some of their cells reprogrammed to cure their afflictions without the need for drugs, transplants or other therapies.

"It's kind of an extreme makeover of a cell," said Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, who led the research. "The goal is to create cells that are missing or defective in people. It's very exciting."

The findings left other researchers in a field that has become accustomed to rapid advances reaching for new superlatives to describe the potential implications.

"I'm stunned," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a developer of stem cell therapies. "It introduces a whole new paradigm for treating disease."

"I think it's hugely significant," said George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston. "This is a very spectacular first."

Even the harshest critics of embryonic stem cell research hailed the development as a major, welcome development.

"I see no moral problem in this basic technique," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a leading opponent of embryonic stems cells because they involve destroying human embryos. "This is a 'win-win' situation for medicine and ethics."


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