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A close-up of a newly opened delphinium flower (Summer 2013).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Researchers at McMaster University Turned Skin Into Blood

In what is considered as a mind-bending breakthrough in cell biology, a group of McMaster University researchers in Hamilton, Canada, has been able to create real blood directly from human skin. Dr. Mick Bhatia's team was working on adult skin cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic cell-like state when the discovery was made. Dr. Bhatia is the director of Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University.

It all began when scientists in Dr. Bhatia's lab discovered distinctive, round blood cells in a petri dish that contained human skin tissue. They then devised a process that transformed these skin cells directly into blood. This discovery is considered an important, if not, seminal contribution in stem cell research by other stem cell researchers in the world. 

This finding eliminates the middle stage of creating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which means that the transformed cells did not have to pass through a primordial, stem-like state or embryonic stage. They went directly to become blood, which produced the normal three blood components -- white, red, and platelets. This could mean safer and simpler treatments compared to stem cells. 

Stem cells have the ability to be transformed into other types of human cell, making it possible to treat or fix damaged parts of the body, ranging from spinal cord injuries to diabetic pancreases. They also offer the possibility of renewable replacement cells to treat diseases including Alzheimer's diseases, heart disease, burns, stroke, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Originally, stem cells were believed to be of two types. The first one is the embryonic stem cells which are pluripotent. This means they can be potentially converted into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, such as muscle cells, bone cells, blood cells, brain cells, and other cells. However, they can only be obtained from embryos in a process that cause their destruction. This has raised serious ethical questions for those who believe that there is already a human person at the time of conception.

The second type of stem cells is the adult stem cells, which can be harvested from newborns or from adults. There is little or no ethical issues associated with this cell type. However, these cells have started to be specialized and therefore lack the flexibility found in embryonic stem cells. Hence, they have limited usefulness.

The third type of stem cells was discovered in 2006, when a Japanese scientist, Shinya Yamanaka, at Kyoto University, developed a technique to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. This method transforms adult cells into one which exhibits many properties of the embryonic stem cells. This was the type of cells that Dr. Bhatia's team was working on when the chance discovery was made. 

The discovery in Dr. Bathia's lab opens the possibility of creating healthy blood from just a patch of skin, which may be life saving for leukemia sufferers who are unable to find bone-marrow donor and cancer patients who need blood transfusions.

There are some questions that still need to be addressed from this finding. First, are these converted cells (human skin to blood) easily produced in large quantities? Second, will this blood cells be as good as real blood when inside a person? It might take some years and a lot of work before these questions can be answered, according to Dr. Bhatia.

This study was published in the November issue of the journal, Nature, with postdoctoral fellow Eva Szabo as the paper's first author.


Blackwell, T. (7 November 2010). Canadian Researchers transforms skin into blood. National Post. Retrieved from

Callaway, E. (10 November 2010). There will be blood. Nature, 468. doi:10.1038/468149a News

Szabo, E., Rampalli, S., Risueno, R. M., Schnerch, A.,... Bhatia, M. (2010). Direct conversion of human fibroblasts to multilineage blood progenitors. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature09591 

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