What if a blood cell from your body could step in and take the place of a weak muscle cell? If that was possible, cells from a different part of the heart, could be programmed to substitute for weak heart muscles, helping a person suffering from a heart attack or better still, take over diseased cells in a person with cancer.
While this may sound futuristic and even impossible, scientists believe that they are getting closer than they have ever been in training cells from different parts of the body to substitute for each other. According to the experts, this is not as radical as it sounds since all they are doing is accelerating what happens in the body naturally - that is, turning versatile immature cells into more mature, specialized ones.
The quest to try getting cells to be able to multi-task is not new. In 2007, scientists successfully turned back the clock with a two-step process that involved turning mature cells into early embryonic stem cells. Then, in the lab, they turned them into whatever specialized cells were needed for transplant.
However, this two-step process was not only inefficient and much more difficult than had been thought, but also, did not seem to work so well, since the cells developed from them did not mature well and were therefore, not as effective. The scientists have therefore changed courses and decided to try a direct conversion approach - that is go from one specialized cell to another - And so far, the results look encouraging.
In 2008, researchers were successful in converting one kind of pancreatic cell into another in living mice. In 2009, they made another breakthrough when then were able to convert mouse skin cells into nerve and heart muscle cells. The biggest success came in 2010, when they turned skin cells into early stage blood cells.
The theory behind cell transformations is based on one simple fact - Every cell of an individual's body carries the same DNA code. They all however do different things depending on which genes within the cells are active. So, to convert a cell, all the scientists have to do is activate the ones they want with the help of chemical signals.
The tricky part of course is to get those chemical signals absolutely right, which as you can imagine is not that easy. Also, even if scientists do make it foolproof there are still plenty of issues to consider - Will the lab generated cells work as effectively inside the human body and more importantly, are they safe or will they turn rogue later and cause harm?
As with any new scientific breakthroughs, there are still a lot of unknowns but the fact that scientists have even come this far makes it quite exciting, doesn't it?
Sources: pysorg.com, sfgate.com