The team, from the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health, had announced in 2011 that it had successfully reprogrammed skin-like cells from the kidneys, found in urine, into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells can be tweaked to become pretty much any human cell in the body; however the traditional technique prompting this transformation — inserting pluripotent genes into the blanket cells via a genetically engineered retrovirus — has its flaws. It seems the presence of the retrovirus leads to a destabilisation of the genome, rendering it unpredictable, susceptible to mutations and thus a liability.

Stem cell biologist Duanqing Pei and his team opted for another route, that they claim presents a safer, faster alternative. Having extracted kidney epithelial cells from the urine of three donors aged 10, 25 and 37, the team used vectors — a type of DNA molecule useful in transporting genetic information from cell to cell — to transport the information without having to integrate the new genes into the chromosome of the kidney cell, something that is presumed to be partly to blame for the aforementioned mutations.

In one experiment the pluripotent stem cells formed in Petri dishes after 12 days, which is about half the time it normally takes for them to form. These cultured cells soon took on the shape of neural rosettes and were deemed to be neural progenitor cells — a precursor to a fully blown neural cell. Eventually these neural progenitor cells were cultured to become neurons and astrocyte and oligodendrocyte glial cells.