Exciting things are happening in the world of stem cell technology and this year scientists are finally on the cusp of an innovation that was previously thought to be a theory that would never become a reality, reprogramming cells. The concept of cell reprogramming is not so brand new, but the story of how we have arrived at such a major discovery in medicine is quite an interesting one. The research studies that built the framework for this new reprogramming discovery took place about twelve years ago. The first was a study that resulted in mature live mice cells developing into another mature cell. This data changed the way cell development was understood, cell development isn’t a straight arrow pointing towards maturity. The idea of flexible cell progression opened new horizons because if cells can be reprogrammed, the chances of developing medical technology that helps our bodies self-heal and regenerate become a dream that’s within reach.
Two other research efforts were also underway to compound on the reprogramming developments found in the first study. In Wisconsin researchers successfully cultured human embryonic cells from a donated embryo. Human embryonic cells are pluripotent. They differentiate into several other cell types as they are responsible for developing the embryo into a fetus and eventually into a baby. The results of this study were groundbreaking, but although the ability to culture pluripotent human cells was tempting, the bioethics of using human embryos for research was too difficult to wade through. The process of isolating the human embryonic cells harmed the embryo and laws in place to make sure bioethics aren’t infringed upon restricted the use of these cells. The other study reignited the light at the end of the tunnel without any of the bioethical conflicts.
Researchers in Japan were able to reprogram cells taken from the tail of a mouse to differentiate into cells that mirrored embryonic cells. These cells were altered by introducing four genes which sparked the reprogramming to turn them into induced pluripotent stem cells. If we had the technology to reprogram mature cells into induced pluripotent cells without any conflicts of bioethics, what else could be possible?
Fast forward to the present, and it seems science has gone beyond possible to achieving the impossible. In 2018 scientists have finally been able to reprogram mature skin cells into stem cells with pluripotency that can be cultured in a lab. Researchers took samples of skin cells from donors with conditions like type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Lou Gehrig’s disease and down syndrome and were able to create cultured induced pluripotent stem cell lines. In the study using the cell lines from the Lou Gehrig’s donor, researchers were able to differentiate the iPS cells into neurons and glia which could lay the groundwork for technology that could produce the very nerve cells the condition damages.
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Where do we go from here?
The combination of cultured cell lines and mature cells reprogrammed into iPS breaks through a few major roadblocks for disease research. Some of the conditions targeted with the study are the most difficult to study for a couple of reasons. First, the conditions are difficult to study in animals, and live cultures of cells from donors with these conditions that live long enough for long-term study are near impossible to come by. This development opens the door for research studies that have been stalled or shelved because of the inability for long-term study and will help produce more accurate results of human cell reaction to research studies than data collected from studies conducted with animal cells. Without the restrictions of one way cell development, researchers are already reprogramming pancreas cells into insulin-producing cells giving enormous hope to diabetes research.
Cell reprogramming developments are exciting, and the promise of reprogramming specialized cells in cultures with longer lives is finally giving researchers the time flexibility they desire for both long-term and short-term studies, but there are still roadblocks to work through before cell reprogramming studies can take flight. Although the reprogramming of the cell can be documented, researchers are still in the dark about what’s happening inside the cell during the reprogramming.
Because of the unknown reactions inside, no reprogramming trigger can be deemed safe enough to be used in a human subject. It’s currently unclear how the cells will react to existing cells and genes in the body. The original studies were conducted using viruses inserted to reprogram the cell genes, but the safety of this method is unstable. The concern is, the reprogrammed genes in the cell could reactivate and cause changes in the cell that could be harmful to its normal function.
Studies focused on finding for safe and stable triggers are already well underway. One research group has reported a successful cell reprogramming using an antibiotic inserted into the cell. We aren’t at the point where we are able to grow replacement organs or cure chronic diseases with induced pluripotent stem cells just yet, but after these recent developments, we are closer to that goal than ever before. As researchers continue to conduct more long-term studies with reliable triggers the possibility of stem cell therapy capabilities continues to expand and become realistic hope for disease treatment in the near future.