Human stem cells have for the first time been cloned from adult skin cells through the use of hollowed-out embryos as a type of organic petri dish, scientists at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) announced Wednesday in a study published by the scientific journal Cell. And in a surprising twist, the discovery was made possible thanks to everybody's favorite stimulant: caffeine.

Scientists led by Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov took donated egg cells and ripped out their DNA using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, replacing it with DNA pulled from an adult's skin cells.

The idea behind this technique is that the stem cells which might grow in the cloned embryo would be a perfect match for the skin cell donor, who then could benefit from the adaptive reconstruction therapies that stem cells offer. Scientists have tried for years to make this work with human cells, but to no avail. However, once OHSU researchers figured out how to make it work with monkeys and mice, it was only a matter of time before human stem cell cloning became reality.

Dr. Mitalipov explained in an advisory that the stem cells his team produced were able to convert themselves "into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells," just like normal stem cells.

The trick to getting the cells growing, they discovered, was a little bit of electricity and a dab of caffeine. "The Starbucks experiment," Mitalipov quipped to NPR.

"Furthermore, because these reprogrammed cells can be generated with nuclear genetic material from a patient, there is no concern of transplant rejection,” he added. “While there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective stem cell treatments, we believe this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine."

The use of embryonic stem cells has consistently faced attacks by religious conservatives who believe there's no difference between an embryo frozen in its earliest stages of mutation and a living, breathing human being. Mindful of the potential for controversy, Mitalipov added that he does not believe his discovery can be used "to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning."

Polling by Gallup, however, shows he has little to worry about: this group remains a minority today, much as it did when President George W. Bush and Republicans were blocking any use of federal funds to further stem cell research. Gallup found in 2012 that 58 percent of Americans think it is morally acceptable to study stem cells obtained from human embryos. President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funds for stem cell research in March 2009.

This video is from OHSU, published Wednesday, May 15, 2013.


Photo: OHSU on Flickr.