Given the proper environmental cues, pluripotent stem cells are capable of differentiating into virtually every type of cell in the body. However, they exhibit such a high degree of plasticity that under the wrong circumstances they may form tumours.
Somatic stem cells offer a way out of this dilemma: they are 'only' multipotent, which means that they cannot give rise to all cell types but merely to a select subset of them, a property that affords them an edge in terms of their therapeutic potential. Now, researchers have combined a number of different growth factors, proteins that guide cellular growth, to convert somatic cells directly into somatic stem cells.
This interconversion turns out to be even more effective if the cells divide more frequently. "Gradually, the cells lose their molecular memory that they were once skin cells," said Schöler. "It seems that even after only a few cycles of cell division the newly produced neuronal somatic stem cells are practically indistinguishable from stem cells normally found in the tissue."
Adapted from the Max Planck Institute announcement.