NEW YORK — Talk about an extreme makeover: Scientists have transformed one type of cell into another in living mice, a big step toward the goal of growing replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases.
The cell identity switch turned ordinary pancreas cells into the rarer type that churns out insulin, essential for preventing diabetes.
But its implications go beyond diabetes to a host of possibilities, scientists said.
It's the second advance in about a year that suggests that someday doctors might be able to use a patient's own cells to treat disease or injury without turning to stem cells taken from embryos.
The work is "a major leap" in reprogramming cells from one kind to another, said one expert not involved in the research, John Gearhart of the University of Pennsylvania.
That's because the feat was performed in living mice rather than a lab dish, the process was efficient and it was achieved directly without going through a middleman like embryonic stem cells, he said.
The newly created cells made insulin in diabetic mice, though they were not cured. But if the experiment's approach proves viable, it might lead to treatments like growing new heart cells after a heart attack or nerve cells to treat disorders like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, cautioned that the approach is not ready for people.
He and his colleagues report the research in a paper published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.
Basically, the identity switch comes about by a reprogramming process that changes the pattern of which genes are active and which are shut off.