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Quiet scientific advance with loud consequences

Stem cell researchers used to walk a minefield. Because they needed human embryos for their work, they faced intense opposition from conservative groups, often couldn’t get funding or cell lines, and—even after the passage of California’s stem cell research initiative—had to move like turtles. But in 2007, Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist based at Mission Bay’s Gladstone Institutes and in a lab at Kyoto University, made a discovery that allows scientists everywhere to leap this obstacle and also places underappreciated Gladstone at the center of medical research’s hottest field. Yamanaka’s new technology, called iPS cells—or induced pluripotent stem cells (don’t ask)—requires no politically charged embryos. Instead, it tweaks regular adult cells to be more flexible than scientists thought possible and behave like embryonic stem cells. This is the iPhone of medical research: Just as it once seemed unfathomable that we would be able to use a phone as a powerful computer, before the discovery of iPS cells a researcher could only move slowly, in one direction. “It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” says Deepak Srivastava, also of the Gladstone Institutes and a fellow pioneer. Scientists are now making rapid advances. Using iPS cells created from adult skin, MIT’s Rudolf Jaenisch corrected a genetic defect in mice and cured their sickle-cell anemia. Srivastava, taking Yamanaka’s work one step further, discovered a new way to convert one kind of human heart cell directly into another; this leap then inspired a Stanford team to transform skin cells into neurons and a Canadian team to convert skin cells into blood cells. The ultimate goal is obviously to regenerate damaged human cells and cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s—even create organs and limbs from scratch. If and when any of that happens, it’ll be sooner than we thought way back in 2007. And it may very well happen here first.