Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered an efficient and totally safe method to turn adult blood cells "all the way back to the way [they were] when that person was a 6-day-old embryo." The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable—from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.
Scientists believe that stem cell therapy could change medicine forever. However, these therapies are impossible to implement on a large scale because you can't acquire embryonic stem cells without having to use actual human embryos—an extremely controversial undertaking. The alternative has always been to use the stem cells found in umbilical cords—which is why rich people use umbilical cord storage facilities to guarantee future treatments for their kids—or use viruses to reprogram adult cells. These viruses can successfully return adult cells to their stem cell state, but the procedure opens the door to numerous complications as a result of potential DNA mutations. And those mutations could lead to cancer.
But this new method changes everything. To start with, it uses normal adult blood cells from the patient, so there's not need to keep umbilical cords in storage. It also doesn't use any virus reprogramming, so it's completely safe. It's also very efficient: researchers successfully transformed about 50 to 60 percent of adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells that can then be turn into any type of cell—a heart muscle cell, a bone cell, a nerve cell, anything.
Described in the August 8 issue of the journal Public Library of Science, the rejuvenating method uses plasmids, DNA molecules that are usually present in bacteria and eukaryotic organisms. These plasmids can replicate themselves independently from the chromosomal DNA, disappearing after they complete their function.
Using electrical pulses, the researchers opened holes in the membrane of blood cells extracted from a patient's spinal cord. They used these tiny holes to inject plasmids loaded with four genes, programmed to make the cells revert to a primitive state. After the plasmids completed their function, they cultivated the cells with irradiated bone-marrow cells. Seven to 14 days later, the cultivated cells magically turned to embryonic stem cells.
The team is now evaluating the quality of these cells, but the potential to accelerate current and future stem cell treatments like never before is nothing sort of miraculous. By getting rid of all the barriers to entry, medical researchers could experiment at a faster pace. And once new therapies are in place, everyone on the planet would be able to receive self-transplants of embryonic cells to cure diseases, fix spinal cords or eye nerves, and rejuvenate organs by renewing tissues without rejection risks or any other side effect. Hypothetically, if you're able to perpetually fix any part of your body, there's no reason you wouldn't be able to live as long as you wanted.
We are not there yet, of course, but the path is more open and wider than ever. More importantly, this makes the whole political debate about embryonic stem cells absolutely pointless.