Back in 2006, when controversy over embryonic stem cell funding was still raging, a piece of research came along that would make the debate essentially obsolete: normal adult cells can actually be reprogrammed into stem cells. No embryos necessary. The technique went on to win its inventor the Nobel Prize. And now, after many years in the lab, a Japanese patient will the first person to receive the next-gen treatment, called induced pluripotent stem cells.

This first clinical trial for iPSCs has long been in the making. Part of its complexity is that cells are taken from each patient and then, through a series of lab procedures, transformed into stem cells. Each patient gets his or her own genetically matched iPSCs.

This individualization is a key advantage over embryonic stem cells, which have been tested in humans before. Special drugs are required to prevent patients' bodies from rejecting embryonic stem cells.

After some final safety checks and genetic tests, the first clinical trial is officially underway in Japan. Nature reports that the first patient will likely receive iPSCs within days. In total, the clinical trial has enrolled six patients, all of whom with an eye condition called macular degeneration that leads to blindness. The iPSCs will replace a deteriorated layer of cells in their retinas.

So far, the procedure has worked without serious adverse effects (usually tumors) in mice and monkeys. If it works in humans, iPSCs could be a promising new avenue for human stem cell therapy, which, if you remember, could hold the key to all sorts of incurable conditions from diabetes to Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries. This is a small first step in that direction. [Nature]


Top image: an eye with signs of macular degeneration. National Eye Institute