Turning cells back to an embryonic - also known as pluripotent - state means they can then be turned into any other type of cell in the body.
Previously that could only be achieved through genetic manipulation which was time consuming and costly. But scientists at the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, found that cells taken from newborn mice effectively 'lose their identity' within 30 minutes of being exposed to mildly acidic conditions.
Professor Austin Smith of Cambridge University, writing in the Journal Nature said the new cells could be seen as a 'blank slate' from which any cell could emerge depending on its environment.
"Remarkably, instead of triggering cell death or tumour growth as might be expected, a new cell state emerges that exhibits an unprecedented potential for differentiation into every possible cell type," he said.
The discovery has been hailed as 'incredible' by scientists who believe it will speed up the advancement of personalized medicine.
Stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Alzheimer's, spinal cord injury, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
They could be used to regenerate organs, stimulate the growth of new blood vessels, or create skin grafts.
"(This) approach in the mouse is the most simple, lowest cost and quickest method to generate pluripotent cells from mature cells," said Professor Chris Mason, Chair of Regenerative Medicine Bioprocessing, at University College London.
"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.
"Who would have thought that to reprogram adult cells to an embryonic stem cell-like (pluripotent) state just required a small amount of acid for less than half an hour - an incredible discovery."
Professor Mason said the development was likely to speed up the development of technology in everyday clinical practice although warned that was still years away.
"The papers describe a major scientific discovery and they will be opening a new era in stem cell biology," said Dr llic.
"Whether human cells would respond in a similar way to comparable environmental clues, it stills remains to be shown. I am sure that the group is working on this and I would not be surprised if they succeed even within this calendar year.
"The approach is indeed revolutionary. It will make fundamental change in a way how scientists perceive the interplay of environment and genome."