Embryonic stem cells and their still undifferentiated ability to transform into any type of cell makes them some of the most valuable types of cells for scientists researching certain therapies, but they also involve a hotly contested ethical debate.

mouse embryo

Researchers injected the reprogrammed pluripotent cells into a mouse embryo to see if they functioned normally. They found they did in fact contribute to development. (Image source: YouTube)

Japanese and American researchers though might have come up with a technique that is being called a potential “game changer.”

According to Reuters, the scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the U.S. exposed mature white blood cells from mice to a mild acidic solution and were able to return them to an embryonic-like state.

“If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient’s own cells as starting material – the age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived,” Chris Mason from University College London, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Reuters.

Embryonic stem cells are so special because they are pluripotent, meaning they have potential to turn into any type of cell. They’re particularly interesting for researchers studying treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and others that could benefit from having damaged cells replaced with new ones. Using stem cells could also someday grow new organs.

The research led by Haruko Obokata from RIKEN’s Laboratory for Cellular Reprogramming was published in the journal Nature. The study explains the process called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).

Watch the cells transform:

“In STAP, strong external stimuli such as a transient low-pH stressor reprogrammed mammalian somatic cells, resulting in the generation of pluripotent cells,” the study authors wrote.

The team injected the reprogrammed cells into a mouse embryo and found that they contributed to its development.

Watch this video with a mouse embryo generated with STAP cells:

“It’s exciting to think about the new possibilities these findings open up, not only in areas like regenerative medicine, but perhaps in the study of cellular senescence and cancer as well,” Obokata said in a statement.

Not only could such a technique have huge implications in the medical field, but it was relatively simple to transform the cells as well. As NPR put it, the acidity of the solution was similar to lemon juice and they only had to soak for 30 minutes. Within a few days, the exposed cells exhibited pluripotent tendencies.

There’s still much more to learn about the process that converts the differentiated cells into a stem cell-like state though. Obokata said they still have to “dig deeper into the underlying mechanisms, so that we can gain a deeper understanding of how differentiated cells can convert to such an extraordinarily pluripotent state.”

Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell expert at the National Institute for Medical Research in Britain, laid out some of the questions that have to be answered before this becomes more applicable to human medicine.

“But the really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH shock triggers reprogramming,” he said. “And why does it not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar, or drink cola?”

What’s more, it also still remains to be shown if the technique would work with human cells as it does in infant mouse blood cells.

Update: A couple months after this study was released, a Japanese government-funded laboratory said the data was falsified and accused the lead researcher of malpractice, which she denied.

“The investigation committee has concluded that Ms. Obokata is responsible for manipulation and therefore for research malpractice,” said Shunsuke Ishii, the Riken scientist who led the committee charged with investigating allegations the work was falsified.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.