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Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have discovered a new way to convert adult stem cells back to an embryonic-like state — a breakthrough that they say will lead to advanced therapies for a range of illnesses from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease.

There has been a race in recent years among stem-cells researchers to develop methods to take an adult cell, like a skin cell, and essentially reprogram it so it has the same properties as embryonic cells. If researchers could make this happen, then medical science could use stem cells to work towards curing illnesses while avoiding the controversial issues that surround embryonic stem cells.

However, safely accomplishing this conversion has proven to be extremely difficult, the problem being that when the cells are converted back they become genetically altered, which creates a host of problems.

The Scripps researchers, who partnered with local companies and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Germany, say they found a way to avoid the genetic manipulations by using recombinant proteins, proteins made from the recombination of fragments of DNA from different organisms. This, they say, allows them to gradually reprogram cells without altering the genes.

“We are very excited about this breakthrough,” said Sheng Ding, an associate professor at Scripps. “Scientists have been dreaming about this for years.”

DAVID WASHBURN

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