Researchers are well underway in the quest to control human cells: transforming cells from one type into another, for example, with an eye to creating low cost methods of producing cells for transplant on demand. Today's stem cell therapies and technology demonstrations of controlled cellular differentiation are the foundations of tomorrow's regenerative medicine, organ regrowth, and repair of age-worn tissues.
Here are a couple of recent articles that are illustrative of the state of cell research today - a lot of technology demonstrations, many potential therapies a step away from early development, and many scientists hard at work.
The researchers [took] human embryonic stem cells - the pluripotent stem cells that can turn into any of the cells that make up the different tissues in our body - and developed a culture procedure involving a precise sequential programme of conditions to specifically produce chondrocytes, the cells that go on to form cartilage. ... The big challenge with embryonic stem cells is getting all the cells in a culture to do the same thing together, in order to make specific cells types. This work is a big step towards that. Using the same principles we could adapt the procedure to produce not just chondrocytes, but other types of cells, for different clinical applications. To do this so efficiently for directing embryonic stem cells towards chondrocytes was a great result.
Scientists at the University of Connecticut Health Center have successfully converted stem cells derived from the adult skin cells of four humans into region-specific forebrain, midbrain, and spinal cord neurons (nerve cells) with functions. ... The UConn team [used] cell reprogramming protocols to first transform the adult tissue into "induced pluripotent stem cells" that are all but identical to embryonic stem cells. ... The researchers then exposed these reprogrammed human cells [to] a series of chemical mixtures to drive them into becoming specialized neuronal cells.
If you read the rest of the articles, you'll see that fine control - quality control, in effect - is a present challenge. Cells are complex, adaptive machines, and a cell culture is not the environment they evolved to perform in. Pluripotent cells have the capacity to become many different cell types, and restricting a whole bunch of them to one desired end point is presently hard and expensive. Like many other infrastructural procedures in biotechnology, however, we should expect to see it become easy and cheap within a short span of years. This is, after all, an age of revolutionary progress.