Harvard scientists say they have created stems cells for 10 genetic disorders, which will allow researchers to watch the diseases develop in a lab dish.
This early step, using a new technique, could help speed up efforts to find treatments for some of the most confounding ailments, the scientists said.
The new work was reported online Thursday in the journal Cell, and the researchers said they plan to make the cell lines readily available to other scientists.
Dr. George Daley and his colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute used ordinary skin cells and bone marrow from people with a variety of diseases, including Parkinson's, Huntington's and Down syndrome to produce the stem cells.
The new cells will allow researchers to "watch the disease progress in a dish, that is, to watch what goes right or wrong," Doug Melton, co-director of the institute, said during a teleconference.
"I think we'll see in years ahead that this opens the door to a new way to treating degenerative diseases," he said.
The new technique reprograms cells, giving them the chameleon-like qualities of embryonic stem cells, which can morph into all kinds of tissue, such as heart, nerve and brain. As with embryonic stem cells, the hope is to speed medical research.
Research teams in Wisconsin and Japan were the first to report last November that they had reprogrammed skin cells, and that the cells had behaved like stem cells in a series of lab tests. Just last week, another Harvard team of scientists said they reprogrammed skin cells from two elderly patients with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and grew them into nerve cells.
Melton said the new disease-specific cell lines "represent a collection of degenerative diseases for which there are no good treatments and, more importantly, no good animal models for the most part in studying them."
A new laboratory has been created to serve as a repository for the cells, and to distribute them to other scientists researching the diseases, Melton said.
"The hope is that this will accelerate research and it will create a climate of openness," said Daley.
He expects stem cell lines to be developed for many more diseases, noting, "this is just the first wave of diseases." Other diseases for which they created stem cells are Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes; two types of muscular dystrophy, Gaucher disease and a rare genetic disorder known as the "bubble boy disease."
Daley stressed that the reprogrammed cells won't eliminate the need or value of studying embryonic stem cells.
"At least for the foreseeable future, and I would argue forever, they are going to be extremely valuable tools," he said.
The reprogramming work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and private contributions to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.