Australians make stem cell breakthrough

Turning skin cells into stem cells


February 02, 2009

AUSTRALIAN scientists have made a stem cell breakthrough that promises to uncap research efforts while skirting around the contentious issue of needing human embryos.

A joint Victorian and NSW team has produced the nation’s first human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell line – basically a cell that acts like an embryonic stem cell but instead was made from an adult skin cell.

The technique allows scientists to continue their work to better understand crippling illnesses such as Parkinson’s Disease without the ethical problems raised by stem cells taken from human embryos that are later destroyed.

Dr Paul Verma, Program Leader for Stem Cell Biology at the Monash Institute of Medical Research, said Australian institutes had previously been reliant on importing iPS stem cell lines from the United States or Japan.

"Until now, in Australia we have relied on people to give us (iPS) cell lines to do any work … we were at the mercy of whoever would give us cell lines," Dr Verma said.

"This definitely gives us a way to produce a lot of cell lines … and if you can get away from the ethics of it then why not"

Stem cells are hailed as the new frontier in medical research and the treatment of disease, given their remarkable ability to develop into many different cell types in the body.

Future work in Australia includes creating iPS cells from an adult with Type 1 diabetes, with the results expected to provide new insights into how the illness progresses.

Similar work is also hoped to point to possible new treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancers, heart disease and spinal cord injury.

"If you take cells from a patient with Parkinson’s and then you induce them to form iPS cells … in the lab you can differentiate them to form the nerves that get degenerated in the patient," Dr Verma said.

"So you can see where the problems arise, and then you can go in and see whether you can treat to prevent that. It’s a really powerful tool."

The NSW and Victorian Governments contributed $455,000 to the $1 million project, with the remainder coming from Sydney IVF Limited and the Australian Stem Cell Centre.

The project will also go on to do comparative work to assess the different stem cell processes – embryonic, iPS and a third called somatic cell nuclear transfer.