The Spanish explorer Ponce de León may have searched through what is now the state of Florida for the Fountain of Youth — a mythical spring with healing powers. But tales of waters that restore a person’s youth pre-date him by at least 2,000 years. Now scientists may have gotten there by the back door.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) believe that they’ve found a method to transform adult red blood cells back into pluripotent stem cells. A discovery of this magnitude may irreversibly change the face of medicine. Think of the possibilities: replacing organs, curing cancer, or healing severed spinal cords.
Ordinarily, red blood cells are great for transporting oxygen, but that’s it. Transforming this plentiful resource into embryonic stem cells bypasses a number of hurdles which have hampered research. As reporter Jesus Diaz details, meaningful therapies have been difficult to ramp up to a large scale:
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.
However, in this case, the red blood cells are donated from the patient — so umbilical storage is not necessary. And virus reprogramming is not used. Results so far are amazing; the researchers transformed nearly 60% of adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells.
The technique — which the team at JHU claims is reliable and quick — involves some genetic manipulation and a brief shock of electrical current. The ground-breaking work was published in the journal Public Library of Science. Diaz continues:
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 turned to embryonic stem cells.
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.
This is an exciting first step. And, of course, a fountain of youth in our lifetime is still a mythical quest. But the practical and political effects of this research are astounding.
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