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Transforming skin cells into stem cells using a molecular toolkit

In an effort to sidestep the ethical dilemma involved in using human embryonic stem cells to treat diseases, scientists are developing non-controversial alternatives: In particular, they are looking for drug-like chemical compounds that can transform adult skin cells into the stem cells now obtained from human embryos. That's the topic of a fascinating article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), ACS' weekly newsmagazine.

C&EN Associate Editor Sarah Everts notes that in 2006, researchers in Japan figured out a way to use genetic engineering to coax a skin cell to become a so-called "pluripotent" stem cell — a type of cell that can potentially morph or change into any cell of the human body. The scientists achieved the result by infecting the skin cell with a virus containing certain genes instructing the cell to change.

Now chemists are trying to reproduce this cellular alchemy with drug-like substances because gene therapies have faced trouble getting into the clinic. Scientists are looking for chemical ways to go backward in cell development — to reprogram mature cells into stem cells. Others are trying to identify substances that can morph one cell directly into other cell types — for example, from a skin cell directly into a nerve cell that might treat Parkinson's disease — without the use of stem cells at all. The ultimate goal is to be able to reprogram any cell of the body into another by means of a simple molecular kit, the article notes. But as chemists start putting together toolkits with these drug-like molecules, they face many technical hurdles as well as challenges getting acceptance from the stem cell community.

"Back to the future with stem cells"
This story is available at

Michael Bernstein | EurekAlert!
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