Harvard Medical School Researchers Discover New Method of Creating Adult Stem Cells

Harvard Medical School researchers have outlined a more efficient, safer way to reprogram adult stem cells, a development that holds strong implications for the field and patient care.

Using human skin cells, researchers have discovered a new way to turn these cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that are nearly identical in quality to human embryonic stem cells. Previously, iPS cells were produced by the injection of a virus, which could adversely modify the cell’s genetic makeup.

The study, which was released yesterday, describes a more effective procedure for turning a human cell into an iPS cell, thereby increasing the availability of these potentially life-saving cells.

The study builds on the research of Japanese physician Shinya Yamanaka, who first turned adult human cells into iPS cells in 2006. These cells can be programmed to grow into a myriad of other cells, giving researchers the potential to construct human organs out of them.

Because the new method can produce higher quality iPS cells up to 100 times more efficiently, researchers say they hope it can be used for patient-specific treatments.


According to Medical School professor Derrick J. Rossi, one of the study’s authors and HSCI principle faculty member, organs could be constructed from a patient’s own cell, which would avoid the problem of a patient’s body rejecting a donated organ transplant, which it recognizes as a foreign object.

Scientists had previously used Yamanaka’s method, which utilizes viruses to make the cell pluripotent. But the Harvard Stem Cell Institute plans to switch to the new method, which substitutes mRNA for viruses.

Unlike viruses, mRNA avoids altering a cell’s genetic makeup during its transformation into a pluripotent stem cell that can morph into any type of body tissue.

Medical School Professor and HSCI co-director Doug Melton said on a conference call with reporters earlier this week that the cells created by this new process have an identical molecular signature to that of human embryonic stem cells.

Still, human embryonic stem cells remain the “gold standard,” according to Melton, who co-chairs the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology.

Harvard has been a pioneer in human embryonic stem cell research, but federal funding for that effort has been in flux after a federal court judge recently struck down government funding for this type of research.

The study’s new method skirts political controversy as it does not involve the use and destruction of human embryos.

The Harvard Stem Cell Initiative will use the new method to create iPS to researchers requesting them, according to Melton.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 1, 2010

An earlier version of the Oct. 1 news article "Harvard Medical School Researchers Discover New Method of Creating Adult Stem Cells" incorrectly referred to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute as the Harvard Stem Cell Initiative.