September 21, 2013
Scientists Create Stem Cells In A Week’s Time
Earlier this summer, scientists were able to grow functioning liver tissue in mice. These small “liver buds” were able to release enzymes and vascularize themselves after implantation. iPS, or induced pluripotent stem cells, were used to produce the liver buds. Ideally, the refinement of this technique would allow us to grow entire organs for patients.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to give rise to many different cell lines. With each division, a stem cell is able to produce another stem cell, or, begin specializing towards a specific cell type. Stem cells are present throughout an organism during development, but scarce later in life.
If there was unlimited access to stem cells, scientists theorize that we could use them to repair damaged tissues, alleviate chronic suffering, or treat disease. Stem cells could possibly be used to regrow a variety of structures. Moreover, those regrown structures would have the same DNA as the rest of the individual, which limits the risk of rejection. Imagine being able to regrow an entire organ, then place it in the body and completely cure a condition.
For example, in type 1 diabetes, the body destroys the insulin producing beta cells and is no longer able to regulate blood sugar levels. If stem cells could be coerced into developing into functional beta cells, they could be placed in the body and eliminate the need for insulin injections.
Unfortunately, research in this area has been challenging. Stem cells were originally taken from embryos, which was morally concerning. Then, the iPS technique was developed in 2006. In this process, an adult cell is “reprogrammed” to think that it is actually an embryonic stem cell.
There have been varying degrees of success with this technique. It is often time consuming and usually only ten percent of cells that undergo the process actually achieve pluripotent status. However, Nature just published an article detailing how scientists were able to “reprogram” adult cells into iPS cells with an almost 100% success rate. That is more than 10 times what is usually observed in these experiments! Furthermore, these scientists were able to do so in less than seven days.
By removing a single protein, Mbd3, adult cells started to become iPS cells in a uniform and predictable manner. Mbd3 causes cells to be less pluripotent, which is a good thing. We need specialized, non-pluripotent cells, in order to function as an organism. These specific cell types make up tissues and organs that allow us to function. However, by “tricking” the cell and removing this protein, scientists were able to create the holy grail of histology, in a week!
The implications of this discovery are immeasurable. With an efficient process to create these cells, scientists can conduct more experiments and further understand how iPS cells could be used in a clinical setting. Utilizing this technique could revolutionize medicine. It could lead to personal, effective, long-term cures.
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