Scientists have successfully converted adult skin cells directly into beating heart cells. This conversion was carried out without going through the laborious process of generating embryonic like stem cells.
The powerful general technology platform could lead to novel treatments for diseases and injuries involving cell loss or damage such as heart disease, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's disease, according to researchers at the Scripps Research Institute.
In 2006, Japanese scientists reported that they could reprogram mouse skin cells to become pluripotent simply by inserting a set of four genes into the cells dubbed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. But creating iPS cells itself is a time taking procedure.
Hence, lead author Sheng Ding and colleagues tweaked the process by completely bypassing the iPS stage and going directly from one type of mature cell (a skin cell) to another (a heart cell).
The team introduced the same four genes initially used to make iPS cells into adult skin fibroblast cells, but instead of letting the genes be continuously active in cells for several weeks, they switched off their activities just after a few days, long before the cells had turned into iPS cells.
Once the four genes were switched off, the scientists gave a signal to the cells to make them turn into heart cells.
"In 11 days, we went from skin cells to beating heart cells in a dish. It was phenomenal to see," said Ding.
Ding points out the protocol is fundamentally different from what has been done by other scientists in the past and notes that giving the cells a different kind of signal could turn them into brain cells or pancreatic cells.
The findings were published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.