A hot new field in stem cell research has been induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, where adult tissues (such as skin) can be reverted back to a stem cell state. This means that organs can be created from samples directly from the patient, side stepping the need for organ transplants from other folk and immunosuppressive drugs.

Previously, this has been done by forcing genes into the adult cells which would "re-program" them into pluripotent stem cells. Back to back papers in Nature today show that altering the environment to stressful conditions are enough to turn blood cells into stem cells.

From their news write up:

Obokata says that the idea that stressing cells might make them pluripotent came to her when she was culturing cells and noticed that some, after being squeezed through a capillary tube, would shrink to a size similar to that of stem cells. She decided to try applying different kinds of stress, including heat, starvation and a high-calcium environment. Three stressors — a bacterial toxin that perforates the cell membrane, exposure to low pH and physical squeezing — were each able to coax the cells to show markers of pluripotency.

Also a BBC link on the study.

I should point out that these studies are limited to mice, but it would be fairly easy to test this on human lymphocytes from the blood.

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I love science stories like these, where an interesting observation (cells change when squeezed) leads to a field changing discovery. Also, it makes me doubly happy to see that the lead author is a woman. As an aside, in the same issue, Nature also published two correspondences taking them to task for their screw up.

Go, science!