WASHINGTON - Embryonic stem cells have long been coveted for their potential to treat a multitude of diseases. Now, researchers have successfully reprogrammed cells found in circulating blood into cells that are molecularly and functionally indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.

The new study may provide a readily accessible source of stem cells and an alternative to harvesting embryonic stem cells.

“Our findings provide the first proof that cells from human blood can morph into stem cells,” said senior study author Dr George Q. Daley, an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Children’s Hospital, Boston.

“Making pluripotent stem cells from blood, which is one of the easiest tissues to obtain, provides an easy strategy for generating patient-specific stem cells that are valuable research tools and may one day be used to treat a number of diseases,” he added.

To produce the new stem cells called pluripotent (iPS), the researchers collected the blood from a 26-year-old male donor.

From the blood sample, they isolated CD34+ cells, a type of stem cell that produces only blood cells, and cultured them in growth factors for six days to increase their number.

During the culture, the scientists infected the CD34+ cells with viruses carrying reprogramming factors, genes normally expressed in embryonic stem cells that can reset the blood cells to an embryonic state.

Colonies of cells exhibiting physical characteristics similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells appeared about two weeks after the procedure.

In further studies, the iPS cells readily developed into clusters of cells called embryoid bodies from which cells of virtually any type can develop.

“Not only has this work identified a new programmable cell type, but the cells are easy to obtain and analyze in many research laboratories and bone marrow transplantation centers around the world,” said Dr Grover C. Bagby, Professor of Medicine and Molecular and Medical Genetics at Oregon Health and Science University.

The study appears online in journal Blood. (ANI)