New research suggests that several types of cells in the human body can be converted to other cells.
Researchers from the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine and the Weizmann Institute of Science have successfully repurposed the function of different mature cells across the body to harvest new tissue and organs.
“When cells develop, they differentiate into different organs with varying functions: bone, intestine, brain, and so on,” Carmit Levy, Ph.D., of the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Tel Aviv, said in a statement. “Our study proves, for the first time, that this process is not irreversible.”
“We can turn back the clock and transform a mature cell that already plays a definite role in the body into a cell of a completely different kind,” she added. “The applications of this are endless—from transplants, which would eliminate long waiting lists and eliminate the common problem of immune system rejection of ‘foreign’ organs; to maybe one-day curing deafness: taking any cell in the body and transforming it into melanocytes to aid in the restoration of hearing.”
For the study, the researchers took cells from different parts of the mouse—including the stomach, intestine, connective tissue, heart, and brain—and placed the cells in a solution to activate the genetic switch Microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF), which is responsible for the production of melanocytes.
The process enabled the researchers to turn a stomach cell into a skin cell.
“All of our genes are in all our cells but genetic mechanisms allow them to manifest in the appropriate place while remaining dormant everywhere else,” Jacob Hanna, Ph.D., of the Weizmann Institute of Science, said in a statement. “Each cell has a kind of ‘switch.’
“We activated the MITF switch to create melanocytes from cells designated for other purposes.”
Levy explained that the genetically manipulated mice could lead to life-saving advancements in the future.
“Future developments based on this method may enable the transformation of one tissue taken from the patient’s own body into another tissue to replace the damaged organ, for example,” she said. “Curing hearing loss is also a promising direction for this research because melanocytes are essential to our auditory system.”
The study was published in Nature Communications.