What would you think if I told you that a patient with leukemia (a cancer of the blood cells) could be cured using cells from their own skin? It may seem like medical science fiction, but the first step toward this kind of cell therapy was recently made by a research team led by Dr. Mick Bhatia at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Dr.Bhatia’s team discovered how to convert human skin cells into blood cells,a discovery that could have a huge impact on the treatment of blood diseases like leukemia.

Did You Know? Mouse skin cells have been converted to brain cells and muscle cells, but this study is the first demonstration of human skin cell conversion to a different cell type.

How did Dr. Bhatia’s team turn skin cells into blood cells?

The researchers isolated specific skin cells, called fibroblasts, from small donor skin samples and grew them in a cell culture dish. Once the cells grew, they infected them with a virus, which integrated its DNA into the cells’ DNA and produced a special protein (called OCT4) that regulates gene behaviour.Then they treated the cells with a mixture of other proteins (called cytokines) that are important for making blood cells. This combination of OCT4 inside the cells and cytokines outside the cells converted the skin fibroblasts into blood cells.

Did You Know? The skin cells were converted directly into blood cells, bypassing a stem cell intermediate stage that many scientists thought would be necessary.

Why is this so exciting?

Although leukemia can be treated with a bone marrow transplant, which completely replaces the diseased blood system using healthy donor blood stem cells found in bone marrow, not everyone who needs a transplant can find a donor that’s a perfect “match”. The donor must have cell proteins that match the recipient’s to prevent tissue rejection.

To avoid rejection issues, a patient’s own perfectly “matched” blood stem cells can be removed and transplanted back after the leukemia cells are killed. However,with this process, there is a chance of re-introducing leukemia back into the patient through stem cells that carry the leukemia mutation.

In contrast, blood cells made from a patient’s skin won’t be rejected by their body (since they carry proteins that are a perfect “match”) and they won’t carry the leukemia mutation because they are not originally from the patient’s own blood.

Did You Know? Dr. Bhatia’s team plans to begin human clinical trials with skin-derived blood cells as early as 2012.

Equally exciting is that this discovery opens the possibility for conversion of human skin cells into other types of cells that could be useful for treating debilitating degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy,Alzheimer's, or maybe even blindness. It is the first step toward a future where readily-accessible skin cells from a patient with diabetes could be turned into insulin-producing pancreatic cells, or skin cells from a patient with muscular dystrophy could be converted to healthy muscle cells.

Thanks to Dr. Bhatia and his team, the future of cell therapy may be only skin deep.

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For more details and commentary on Dr. Bhatia’s latest research:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/cellular-alchemy-that-turns-skin-into-blood-cells-a-possible-leukemia-breakthrough/article1788954/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101107202144.htm

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101107/full/news.2010.588.html (more technical article)

References:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7323/full/nature09591.html

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101107/full/news.2010.588.html

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101107202144.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127134237.htm

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100805/full/news.2010.394.html

Krysta Levac

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I earned a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University in 2001. I spent 7 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in stem cell biology at Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, ON. I currently enjoy science writing, Let's Talk Science outreach, and volunteering at my son's school. I love sharing my passion for science with others, especially children and youth. I am also a bookworm, a yogi, a quilter, a Lego builder and an occasional "ninja spy" with my son.



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