Derrick Rossi, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, created pluripotent stem cells--which can turn into virtually any other type of cell in the body--from non-stem cells without using viruses to tinker with a cell's genome, as conventional methods do. This means that Rossi's method could be substantially safer for treating disease. The work is published today in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
"Rossi has figured out how to turn a skin cell into a stem cell without genetic modifications, and to do it efficiently," said Doug Melton, codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where Rossi is a principal faculty member, at a press conference.
Rossi's innovation, which has not yet been tested in people, was to use messenger RNA instead of DNA to produce the four proteins needed to reprogram the cell. He has started a company called ModeRNA to commercialize this use of messenger RNA. He said the approach may also have potential in gene therapy, which also relies on viruses to deliver treatment, but he declined to talk further about the company or possible gene therapy applications because the work is at such an early stage.