Technologies that reprogram one type of cell to perform the role of another hold a huge amount of potential when it comes to medicine, possibly changing the way we treat everything from Parkinson's to pancreatic cancer to brain tumors. One broader outcome of all of this could be a game-changing ability to repair and restore damaged tissue and organs. Scientists are now reporting a promising advance in the area, in the form of patch that they say can use an electric pulse to turn skin cells into the building blocks of any organ.
The new technology has been dubbed tissue nanotransfection and was developed by scientists at The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. According to the researchers, it uses the skin as a kind of regenerative cellular factory, where it produces any cell type that can then be used to repair injured or aging tissues, organs and blood vessels. It consists of a nanotechnology-based chip that is applied to the skin, which is then struck with a short electric pulse to deliver genetic instructions into the cells of the tissue.
"These are genes that induce tissue plasticity allowing the flexibility to direct the fate," Chandan Sen, first author of the paper, explains to New Atlas. "Thus, for example, skin cells can be directed to form blood vessels, or neural cells, or some other cell of interest."
We have seen a number of promising approaches to reprogramming cells for various regenerative health purposes. In 2012, a Japanese researcher won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that skin cells from mice could be harvested and converted into stem cells in the lab, work that has inspired a number of exciting breakthroughs since.
But according to Sen, one of the main advantages his tissue nanotransfection technology holds over other approaches is the fact that the cell conversion takes place in the body. This avoids the thorny issue of immune response, in which the host cells react to the newcomers and possibly attack them, something that can cause a raft of complications.
"Ours is reprogramming of not just cells but tissue within the live body under immune surveillance," he tells us. "Our strategy must co-operate with physiological factors to achieve the end goal."
That end goal is still a while away, but his team is making promising progress all the same. It put the technology to the test on animals, and in one experiment involving mice with badly injured legs lacking blood flow, it was able to convert skin cells into vascular cells. Within about a week, the legs featured active blood vessels. By the second week they were saved.
In a separate experiment, the team was also able to use the technology to reprogram skin cells into nerve cells, which were then injected into brain-injured mice to assist with stroke recovery.
"This is difficult to imagine, but it is achievable, successfully working about 98 percent of the time," said Sen. "With this technology, we can convert skin cells into elements of any organ with just one touch. This process only takes less than a second and is non-invasive, and then you're off. The chip does not stay with you, and the reprogramming of the cell starts. Our technology keeps the cells in the body under immune surveillance, so immune suppression is not necessary."
The team hopes to move onto clinical trials some time next year, but Sen tells us they must first test the technology on larger animals and design the device to work on humans.
You can hear from Sen in the video below, while the research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Source: Ohio State University