A new technique that allows blood to be made directly from skin cells has been discovered. The pioneering approach by Canadian researchers uses human skin stem cells to create blood stem cells without an intermediate step that previously was thought necessary.

Until now to make blood stem cells, the building blocks for a variety human cells (called pluripotent stem cells) have been used as a steppingstone a process. This has proven largely inefficient, but research led by Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Instituteat the Michael G DeGroote School of Medicine, has shown that making blood from skin can be achieved in a one step process.

Cynthia Dunbar, head of the molecular hematopoiesis at the U.S National Institutes of Health said: "Bhatia's approach detours around the pluripotent stem cell stage and thus avoids many safety issues, increases efficiency, and also has the major benefit of producing adult-type l blood cells instead of fetal blood cells, a major advantage compared to the thus far disappointing attempts to produce blood cells from human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells."

The discovery was replicated several times over two years using human skin from both the young and the elderly to prove it works for any age of person.

The approach could be used for creating blood for surgery or treating conditions like anemia from a patch of the patient's skin. Other potential applications include generating bone marrow and improved treatment of leukaemia and other types of cancer, including solid tumors.

"We have shown this works using human skin. We know how it works and believe we can even improve on the process," Bhatia said. "We'll now go on to work on developing other types of human cell types from skin, as we already have encouraging evidence."

"This finding will no doubt be met with excitement in the research and medical communities," said Michael Rudnicki, director of The Stem Cell Network. "It's been nearly 50 years since blood stem cells were first identified here in Canada and it's fitting that this incredible new discovery should have happened here as well."

The research was published in Nature on November 7. Bhatia discusses the breakthrough in the following video: