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Researchers at Lund University (Sweden) along with collaborators from the Center of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona (CMR[B]) have identified four genetic keys that unlock the genetic code of skin cells and allow them to be modified to produce red blood cells.

Catalan PhD student at Lund University Sandra Capellera, who is the first author on the article, explains that this is the first time anyone has been able to transform skin cells into red blood cells, according to the CMR[B]. The study, published in the scientific journal Cell Reports, shows that of 20,000 gens, only four are necessary for this type of reprogramming, which takes eight days.

Each individual has a unique genetic code; a full instruction manual that describes exactly how each cell in the body is formed. You could say that which type each cell becomes (brain, muscle, adipose tissue, bone, skin, etc.) depends on the section of this manual it “reads”. The research team in charge of this study was able to transform a skin cell into a blood cell.

In order to trigger the reprogramming, researchers introduced various combinations of 60 genes into the genome of the skin cells using a retrovirus, until they found one that turned the skin cells into red blood cells.

The experiment was conducted with mice and the preliminary results indicate that the findings could also apply to human cells. Part of the validation of the results obtained in human skin cells was carried out by the team at the CMR[B], led by postdoc researcher Julián Pulecio under the supervision of Ángel Raya.

This discovery is significant not only from a biological standpoint (helping us understand how red blood cells are produced and the genetic instructions required) but also for therapies. There is currently a shortage of donors for patients with anemia-related diseases and this study is an opportunity to produce red blood cells from the patient’s own skin cells.

“One possible application for this technique is to make personalized red blood cells for transfusion but this goal is still far from becoming a clinical reality,” says the head of the research team at Lund and director of the study, Johan Flygare.


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