In a major breakthrough for stem cell science, scientists have converted umbilical cord blood cells into cells that act like embryonic stem cells.
For many years, the human umbilical cord has always been touted as potential source of cells to cure a number of conditions including type 1 diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Whilst the umbilical cord contains a large number of stem cells, the cells have already progressed down the developmental pathway meaning their use has been very limited.
The two research teams involved with this latest breakthrough have developed a relatively simple technique that “reprograms” the cord blood cells to look and act like embryonic stem cells – theoretically able to differentiate into any cell type in the body.
Lead researcher Dr Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute says cord blood cells could serve as a safe and uncontroversial source of blank stem cells. They can also be collected without any risk for the donor and expected to carry minimal genetic mutations because they are very young cells.
In addition to these benefits, the cells are relatively undeveloped meaning they can be given to patients without needing an identical match. This – in conjunction with the relatively simple reprogramming technique – means existing cord blood banks could build publicly available stem cell banks.
According to JDRF Research Manager Dr Dorota Pawlak, this discovery has implications for people with type 1 diabetes.
“JDRF-funded researchers have pioneered the safe and effective transplantation of beta cells into people with type 1 diabetes and have also successfully converted embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells.”
“The limitation to the success of these programs has been the availability of suitable cells. Although this technology needs to be further refined before applied in individuals, the discovery shows that it may be possible to generate a plentiful supply of useful stem cells for regeneration and replacement of beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes.”