Scientists have turned skin cells into immune cells

Scientists have turned human skin cells into transplantable white blood cells for the first time, according to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where the research took place. Researchers from the Centre of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona and the Centro de Investigacion Biomedica en Red de Enfermedades Raras in Madrid collaborated on the project.

White blood cells are immune cells that fight off infection, and being able to reproduce them in the lab means that we could one day see far more effective and sophisticated treatments for cancer or immune system disorders. (Maybe even a cure for the common cold, if we’re lucky.)

Previous attempts to reprogramme skin cells have been costly and time-intensive, taking at least two months of lab work. The cells that resulted didn’t behave well, either: they tended to develop tumours and had difficulty grafting to organs or bone marrow.

The new method is much more seamless, tumour-free, and only takes two weeks. The difference is that instead of doing the gruelling work of turning a cell back into its early stem cell state and then creating a new cell from there, scientists essentially wiped cells’ memories, telling them to forget what kind of cell they were and then programming them to believe they were white blood cells. (Who’d have thought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would come true… but for cells, not whole people?)

This process, called indirect lineage conversion, uses a molecule called SOX2 to make a cell more flexible and open to being any kind of cell. Then scientists insert miRNA125b, a genetic factor that essentially brainwashes the cells into acting like they’re white blood cells. Researchers had previously used this technique to make vascular cells, which line blood vessels. Now they’re conducting further safety and proof-of-concept studies to prepare for future clinical trials.

Image via NIAID’s Flickr.

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Diane Shipley