The two research teams, one from Japan and one from the U.S., used a combination of four different genes to essentially reprogram adult cells back into embryonic stem cells.
"This is early days, this is proof of principle, but I think this is very encouraging that these cells are being reprogrammed into a state that has many of the properties of an embryonic stem cell."
"People didn't know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.''
One of the most exciting possibilities of using the "reprogramming" technique is the ability to generate stem cells for an individual – someone who needs them to repair a damaged spinal cord, say – using cells taken from their own skin. This would prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs and tissues, one of the challenges with current transplantation practices.
Scientists caution that questions and uncertainties remain about the pair of results. To induce a skin cell into pluripotency – a state that mimics the multi-functional embryonic stem cells – scientists shuttled a combination of four genes into the cell with the help of a retrovirus. This disrupts the DNA of the cell, which may cause cancer to develop.
"We don't know how exactly to control the expression of these genes," Rossant said, adding that the cells can't be used in their current state for therapeutic purposes. "It's not clear that these cells would be used for treating patients at this point."
Still, she said, the techniques and subsequent cell lines will create an ample supply of embryonic stem cells that will supply a host of possibilities for basic research, including the ability to study disease processes in greater detail.
Of course one could argue embryonic stem cells are still better because these ones mimic embryonic stems, but they actually aren't, and there could be differences. I don't care, in either case this is a huge leap forward for further studying stem cells and their potential.