We all start off as a ball of cells. As we grow, our cells change and become more specialised. With each division, chemical alterations in the nucleus send them further down their set path. It was previously thought the only way to reverse this was to manipulate the cell nucleus, or replace it altogether. However, new research has shown it may be as easy as dipping it in acid.
This isn’t totally novel; carrot cells have been seen to revert to pluripotent stem cells in nature when placed under acid stress. However, it has not been shown to occur naturally in any animal cell.
Haruko Obokata’s team in Japan has shown that just 30 minutes exposure to pH of 5.4-5.8 results in cells which looked remarkably like stem cells. This process, referred to as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), was carried out on cells from a range of tissue types including blood, fat and muscle. The STAP cells produced were shown to be pluripotent: they had the potential to differentiate into any tissue type in an embryo.
The cells were successfully incorporated into mouse embryos. Under lab conditions, the STAP cells did not aggregate and grow normally and most died within 7 days. However, with the help of a hormone, they could be encouraged to produce further STAP stem cells which could grow normally and have the characteristics of pluripotent cells.
The potential stem cells have is huge. With the right stimulus the cells can be encouraged to specialise into any cell type in the body. Perhaps most importantly, this could provide a source for tissue transplants. It is estimated weeks could be knocked off processes which used a patient’s own stem cells. At the end of 2013 over 7000 people in the UK alone were on the waiting list for organ transplants. For these people, that extra time could make all the difference. Though we’re still a long way from treatment in humans as the cells will need to be proven safe, the process, hailed as ‘revolutionary’ is certainly a step in the right direction.