In this article, we’ll explore what induced pluripotent stem cells (also referred to as iPS) are, how they’re used, and the pros/cons of using them.
In 2007, they took an adult skin cell and introduced it to embryonic genes, which caused it to revert back to a “stem cell-like” state.
Understanding The Significance
Before this discovery, researchers thought that only embryonic stem cells could be pluripotent, or self-renewing. Pluripotent cells are truly master cells, which means that they can create any cell or tissue the body needs to repair itself. However, only embryonic cells are considered 100 percent pluripotent.
This Discovery Was A Game Changer
Without a doubt, discovering induced pluripotent stem cells was a game changer. Researchers are now able to study, treat, and potentially cure diseases without the moral implications of using embryonic stem cells. Many people feel that genetic reprogramming is a much more ethical process than taking stem cells from embryos and eggs.
This method is considered a great way to create and then study diseased cells that have the same genetics as patients. They also have some therapeutic potential, of which we’ll explain later.
However, despite this discovery being remarkable, there is most certainly still a ways to go.
How Are IPS Cells Used?
For example, it’s extremely difficult to obtain actual brain cells from a living patient with Parkinson’s Disease. This process is even more complicated if you want to study the disease in its early stages before symptoms begin presenting themselves.
Fortunately, with genetic reprogramming, researchers can now achieve this. Scientists can do a skin biopsy of a patient with Parkinson’s disease and create IPS cells. These IPS cells can then be converted into neurons, which will have the same genetic make-up as the patients own cells.
Because of IPS cells, researchers can now study conditions like Parkinson’s disease to determine what went wrong and why. They can also test out new treatment methods in hopes of protecting the patient against the disease or curing it after diagnosis.
In addition, IPS cells have also been looked to as a way to replace cells that are often destroyed by certain diseases. However, there is still research to be done here.
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If you’re familiar with stem cells, then you know that they’re often used in the transplantation process. However, IPS cells are not. While scientists would like to use them for transplantation medicine, there are a few kinks to be worked out. For instance, viruses are currently used to introduce the reprogramming factors into adult cells, which sometimes causes cancer in animals. Scientists would like to discover a non-viral strategy first so that the procedure can actually be a useful treatment for humans.
Advantages of IPS Cells
One of the main advantages of IPS cells is the avoidance of immune rejection. Since IPS cells are derived from the patient’s own cells, the risk of rejection is very slim.
To date, a common complication with stem cell therapy when using donor cells is graft-versus-host disease. This occurs when the blood cells developed from the donor’s stem cells identifies the recipient’s cells as foreign and begins to attack them. Approximately 30 to 70 percent of patients with a donor stem cell transplant develop some level of graft-versus-host disease. The risk increases if the donor and recipient are not closely matched.
Also, as previously mentioned, IPS cells serve as an effective model to comprehend the mechanisms of disease. Drugs can be tested on these cells to see what works and what doesn’t.
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Limitations of IPS Cells
While there is certainly great potential, there are also drawbacks. IPS cells are not 100 percent pluripotent, so how they respond to things in research and medicine will be different than embryonic stem cells. The latter can turn into all types of cells in the body and can be grown easily in culture. However, IPS cells may not be able to function in the same way even though there is hope that they can.
The ability to treat people with customized IPS cells also sounds very promising, but making it affordable would be a challenge. In addition, technical challenges and limited understanding makes it difficult to control these types of stem cells. There is currently no way to know how they will behave in the body.
Three studies found that the reprogramming process and the subsequent culture of IPS cells in vitro can induce genetic and epigenetic abnormalities in these cells. There was an average of five point mutations in each analyzed IPS cell lines, with most mutations being:
- Splice variants, which are cancer biomarkers
- Non-synonymous (nucleotide mutation)
- Nonsense (stop codon was introduced in the DNA sequence)
These studies raise concerns regarding how and if IPS cells can be used in medicine.
Increased understanding will one day open the door to the generation of safer and more efficient IPS cells. Until then, researchers will be busy at work. Once the reprogramming problem is tackled, we’ll witness a breakthrough that will open the door to new avenues of research and stem cell therapy.