Until now, only stem cells from early embryos were thought to be able to do this. If the finding is confirmed, it will mean cells from your own body could one day be turned into all sorts of perfectly matched replacement tissues and even organs.
If so, there would be no need to resort to therapeutic cloning-cloning people to get matching stem cells from the resulting embryos. Nor would you have to genetically engineer embryonic stem cells (ESCs) to create a "one cell fits all" line that doesn't trigger immune rejection. The discovery of such versatile adult stem cells will also fan the debate about whether embryonic stem cell research is justified.
"The work is very exciting," says Ihor Lemischka of Princeton University. "They can differentiate into pretty much everything that an embryonic stem cell can differentiate into."
The cells were found in the bone marrow of adults by Catherine Verfaillie at the University of Minnesota. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and though the team has so far published little, a patent application seen by New Scientist shows the team has carried out extensive experiments. These confirm that the cells-dubbed multipotent adult progenitor cells, or MAPCs-have the same potential as ESCs. "It's very dramatic, the kinds of observations [Verfaillie] is reporting," says Irving Weissman of Stanford University. "The findings, if reproducible, are remarkable."
At least two other labs claim to have found similar cells in mice, and one biotech company, MorphoGen Pharmaceuticals of San Diego, says it has found them in skin and muscle as well as human bone marrow. But Verfaillie's team appears to be the first to carry out the key experiments needed to back up the claim that these adult stem cells are as versatile as ESCs.