Israeli team makes embryo stem cells out of skin

“What we actually did is convert skin cells into three types of stem cells that can produce embryos,” explained Dr. Yossi Buganim of HU’s Department of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research.

May 9, 2019 16:22
2 minute read.
Cells seen under a microscope

Cells seen under a microscope. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A team of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have discovered a set of genes capable of transforming murine skin cells into all three of the cell types that comprise the early embryo: the embryo itself, the placenta and the extraembryonic tissues, such as the umbilical cord. The next step, they say, will be to create an entire embryo from skin cells.

“What we actually did is convert skin cells into three types of stem cells that can produce embryos,” explained Dr. Yossi Buganim of the Department of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research, who led the research in his lab. “We did not have a baby in the dish. But the next step would be to organize these cells into a three-dimensional structure and implant them into a foster mother. Then you would get a baby.”

Specifically, the research team – which also included Dr. Oren Ram from the university’s Institute of Life Science, Prof. Tommy Kaplan from its School of Computer Science and Engineering and doctoral students Hani Benchetrit and Mohammad Jaber – found a new combination of five genes that, when inserted into skin cells, reprogram the cells into each of three early embryonic cell types.

For example, the researchers discovered that the gene “Eomes” pushes the cell toward placental stem-cell identity and placental development, while the “Esrrb” gene orchestrates fetus stem cells development through the temporary acquisition of an extraembryonic stem cell identity.

The team used new technology to scrutinize the molecular forces that govern cell fate decisions for skin cell reprogramming and the natural process of embryonic development.

This work has implications for modeling embryonic disease and placental dysfunctions, as well as solving certain infertility problems by creating human embryos in a petri dish, Buganim explained.

The research was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

In the future, it may be possible to create an entire human embryo from skin cells without the need for sperm or eggs. But making such a baby, said Buganim, may be 50 years in the future.

“To make a baby, we need to organize the cells into a 3-D structure,” Buganim explained. “Then, if done correctly – if we find the exact ratio between the cell types and the right environment – we could generate an embryo.”

Buganim said he did not know if it would be researchers from Hebrew U. or another university who would be first to make such a baby.

“I know many labs that are trying to do it,” he said, but his lab’s breakthrough is what has “enabled the race to really begin.”

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