In a neat bit of cellular wizardry, human skin cells have been turned into blood cells.
The research could have huge implications for blood-related diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma, and could also eventually lead to new treatments for other types of tissues inside the human body.
"There is an incredible need clinically to generate red blood cells," said Mick Bhatia, a scientist at McMaster University in Canada and co-author of the study in the journal Nature. "But I think it will also expand the idea that skin cells could be directly turned into other cell types."
The experiment was straightforward: The Canadian scientists first harvested skin cells from several human volunteers. The researchers then exposed those cells to a virus. The virus injected a gene, known as OCT4, into the skin cells. OCT4 encodes a protein that acts as a kind of switchboard to activate other genes in order to make different kinds of cells.
Bathed in a solution filled with cytokines, molecules that stimulate the immune system, the skin cells then transformed into blood cells.
By itself this accomplishment is impressive. What makes it even more important is that the new blood cells persisted; they never reverted into an embryonic-like state, as has been the case with other research.
The skin-derived blood also contained all three classes of blood cells: white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Furthermore, all three classes seemed to function like normal adult blood cells.
This development could have huge implications in a number of fields, such as cancer research, said Christine Williams, Director of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.
"Like everyone else, we are pretty excited about this result," said Williams. "It could have a tremendous impact on cancer patients, particularly those with leukemia, lymphoma or undergoing chemotherapy."
The new technique would also prove beneficial for patients undergoing chemotherapy for non-blood cancers.
Chemotherapy devastates a patient's blood, often so profoundly that the treatment must be temporarily suspended so the patient can recover. During this lull, the cancer can roar back stronger than ever.
Replenishing their bodies with fresh blood could help patients recover at a faster rate than would be possible today.
In spite of the promise of the new technique, it won't be used in medical practice for at least several years. This research was done in the lab, but the Canadian scientists hope that to begin clinical trials within the next three to four years.