Scientists discover how to turn human skin into blood

Scientists at McMaster University have discovered how to transform human skin into blood. The researchers had previously used chemicals to transform mouse skin cells into neurons, but this is the first time human cells have been altered in this way.

This process differs from modifications involving stem cells as it relies on a chemical brew to transform the cells. Using this chemical mixture, the McMaster team was able to transform adult human skin fibroblasts into white and red blood cells and platelets. Even though these modified cells are the same as human blood cells, it's unclear whether they will be useful for patients. Also, scientists have yet to discover how to create large amounts of these converted cells. These findings were published today in Nature:

"It takes us a step along the line to believing that you can produce anything from almost anything," says Ian Wilmut, an embryologist and director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, UK. Such 'direct conversions' also offer a potentially safer, simpler tool for creating patient-specific cell therapies than is promised by adult cells reprogrammed to become stem cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells).

To make blood progenitor cells, [McMaster researcher Mickie] Bhatia and his team collected skin fibroblasts from several volunteers. They infected the cells with a virus that inserted the gene OCT4, and then grew them in a soup of immune-stimulating proteins called cytokines [...However] epigenetic modifications - changes that modify gene expression without altering the DNA sequence - could differ between blood cells produced naturally and those created by direct conversion. "The journey from a zygote to a specialized blood cell is very long. The journey from a fibroblast to a blood cell in a petri dish may take a very different route," says Daley.

You can read the team's findings in full here.

[Photo: Bruce Wetzel/Harry Schaefer/National Cancer Institute]