"One day, this may allow the doctor to replace the scalpel with a sort of genetic surgery," said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, who was not involved in the research. "If this can be perfected, it would represent one of the holy grails of medicine."
Researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute successfully used genetically engineered viruses to insert three new genes into mature pancreas cells from adult mice. This intervention caused the normal pancreas cells, which produce digestive enzymes, to transform into insulin-producing beta cells.
"It's kind of an extreme makeover of a cell," lead researcher Douglas A. Melton said. "The goal is to create cells that are missing or defective in people. It's very exciting."
The researchers then repeated the intervention in diabetic mice. While the mice were not cured of their diabetes, their blood sugar levels did become nearly normal.
The next step, Melton says, is to replicate the experiment in human cells and then to move on to clinical human trials. Researchers hope that the technique can be adapted for other organs as well, allowing the regeneration of currently incurable spinal cord injuries and degenerative diseases.
"The idea to be able to reprogram one adult neuron type into another for repair in the nervous system is very exciting," said Paola Arlotta of Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School.
The research builds on recent findings that adult cells can be induced to transform into cells closely resembling embryonic stem cells, thus averting the need for the harvesting of human embryos that has made stem cell research so politically controversial.
"I see no moral problem in this basic technique," said embryonic stem cell research opponent Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.