Singapore scientists successfully create blood from skin cells

(Image source: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore) Making blood from skin cells through direct reprogramming.
(Image source: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore) Making blood from skin cells through direct reprogramming.

In the field of regenerative medicine, human cells, tissues and organs are replaced, regenerated and engineered to restore or establish normal function. One of the major hurdles faced in this branch is manufacturing new blood cells and immune cells for patients in need. A group of researchers in Singapore, have now reported that they were able to successfully generate mouse blood and immune cells from skin cells.

“On the face of it, skin cells and blood cells couldn’t be more different from one another. We have been interested in whether it might be possible to rewrite the identity of cells, specifically to turn skin into blood,” said the study’s first author Dr Cheng Hui, who initiated this project as a postdoctoral fellow at GIS.

There have been efforts in the past, to generate new mouse blood cells from skin cells but the yielded cells could last only two weeks, once injected back into mice. In contrast, the artificially skin-derived blood cells in this study could last for multiple months in mice.

The researchers have identified a cocktail of four factors (hematopoietic transcription factors like Scl, Lmo2, Runx1 and Bmi1) that can convert mouse skin cells into different types of blood cells. By introducing these four factors that are normally active in blood cells into skin cells, they could artificially ‘rewrite’ skin cells to adopt features of blood cells.

In 2012, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka won The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (he shared it with Sir John Bertrand Gurdon, the English developmental biologist) for the discovery that, when activated, skin cells from mice could be reprogrammed to immature stem cells, which, in turn, can grow into different types of cells within the body.

“This is not only of practical importance for regenerative medicine in terms of potentially yielding a source of new blood or immune cells, but it is also interesting from a fundamental biological perspective that two very different cells – like skin and blood – can be interconverted,” said Dr. Kyle Loh, a member of the team.

GIS Executive Director Prof Ng Huck Hui said: “This development could be a potential game-changer for regenerative medicine. If researchers are able to extend what they did with the mice to human cells in the foreseeable future, it can translate into tangible benefits for the patients in need.”

Published in scientific journal Nature Communications, this study was led by researchers from A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).