Writing in the journal Science, the researchers described a method of creating a cocktail of small-molecule compounds to reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state with the ability to differentiate into any other type of cell in the body.
Previously, genetic manipulation was necessary to induce this pluripotent state, they said, a difficult and complicated process with limited clinical applications.
Using small molecule compounds represented "a whole new route" to pluripotent stem cells, researcher Deng Hongkui of Peking University said.
"Small molecules have advantages because they can be cell permeable, non-immunogenic, more cost-effective, and can be more easily synthesized, preserved, and standardized," the researchers wrote.
The said they believe their findings "open up the possibility of generating functionally desirable cell types in regenerative medicine by cell fate reprogramming using specific chemicals or drugs, instead of genetic manipulation and difficult-to-manufacture biologics."