Stem cells can turn into other types of cells and divide to produce more of the same type. This mimicry process has the ability to help cure a number of diseases and disorders, but is unique to stem cells specifically. Given that most stem cells are found in embryos, there is a moral obligation to consider when studying this field. All of these issues result in lower chances to research and fewer diseases finding cures through this method.
However, researchers have found ways to reprogram stem cells found in the human body to act as the kind found in embryos. Establishing new characteristics in cells has been discussed as early as 1965, though successfully applying the theory to stem cells has been a more recent venture. Having the ability to get stem cells from the patient directly can change the way we look at medicine entirely.
Why Should We Reprogram Cells
The first reason, as mentioned, is the unique property of the stem cells resulting in a shortage. Considering the moral implications of using stem cells freely, many people will find more solace in getting stem cells through different means than just embryos. The embryonic stem cells or ESCs are better performing than those found in adults but regulations can make research difficult.
Secondly, when stem cells are used to regrow tissue, there is always a chance of the body rejecting the new cells. When using the patient’s own stem cells, the risk of rejection is reduced greatly or purged entirely. Cutting out this risk is more than worth the extra hoops leading up to reprogramming other cells.
How Cells Are Reprogrammed
ESCs are the only natural source of pluripotent cells. Pluripotent cells are stem cells that can transform into one of the three germ layers. The layers include endoderm such as stomach lining and lungs, mesoderm such as muscle and bone, or ectoderm such as epidermal tissues and the nervous system. Due to this unique nature, the reasons why doctors and researchers want to get their hands on these cells may seem obvious. However, since these cells are only found as part of ESCs, being able to work with them can be difficult.
In 2006, cell researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka along with lead author Kazutoshi Takahashi of Japan proved that adult cells could be reprogrammed into their pluripotent state. These newly reprogrammed cells are called induced pluripotent cells or iPSCs and act almost exactly like the real thing with a few drawbacks. Because the iPSCs are much easier to come by than ESCs, researchers have excitedly begun conducting tests to see what they can do without too many barriers getting in the way.
The iPSCs are created by introducing new characteristics to cells, much like has been proposed as far back as 1965. Researchers take adult cells and use viruses to introduce four genes. These genes are Sox2, Oct4, Klf4, and c-Myc. Sox2 is a maintenance factor for pluripotency cells. Oct4 is also involved in the self-renewal process much like Sox2. Klf4 regulates proliferation and differentiation of reprogramming. Gene c-Myc is involved with the replicating process.
Due to the properties of these genes and the viruses used to transport them, there are still many risks involved that make iPSCs nearly unusable for clinical treatments. Their main purpose lies in research and creating another rung on the ladder to bigger breakthroughs in stem cell therapy.
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Obstacles for Reprogrammed Cells
The iPSCs are never complete replicas of the original pluripotent cells found in ESCs. Meaning, they react in different ways than the stem cells we’ve already conducted research on, and not all of these different ways are good. For many reasons, iPSCs are considered imperfect but a start in the right direction for recreating perfect pluripotent cells.
However, the reprogramming process itself isn’t always efficient. Only about one cell in every thousand manages to to be successfully reprogrammed. Because of this low ratio, researchers need the iPSCs to replicate and divide a lot to have better chances, so part of the reprogramming process is ensuring they can divide for much longer than most adult cells. Unfortunately, this leads to another harmful side effect.
With the constant replication process and the viruses that transmit the genes in the first place, there is a heightened risk of cancer involved. Two of the genes in the reprogramming process are known to be associated with cancer, Sox2 and c-Myc. In 2009, Drs. Kevin Eggan and Lee Rubin of the United States found a chemical to replace both genes in the reprogramming process, Tgf-ß. Regardless, there is still a high risk of cancer during the process that doctors and medical professionals are trying to find a way through.
Lastly, for those still willing to attempt going through therapy with iPSCs despite the risks involved, there’s a lot in the patient’s way. Gathering iPSCs that’ll work is difficult enough without adding prices into the equation. An affordable option for using iPSCs is simply not here at the moment, unfortunately. Though, using iPSCs isn’t impossible with enough money and effective customization of the cells themselves.
Foundations of Stem Cell Research
Reprogrammed cells are not exactly new in the medical world, being around for more than a decade already with a lot of research being poured into the matter ever since. The iPSCs and similar cells still need some work to reach perfection, which includes effective treatment, no dramatically harmful side-effects like cancer, and affordability to the average citizen. The cost of such a cure will be debated on different terms, but the way the treatment works is what researchers are trying to solve now.
Without iPSCs, we wouldn’t have gotten as far into research of stem cells as we have today, so there are certainly some major benefits to having them around. Thanks to iPSCs and the entire reprogramming process, we’re able to create building blocks to discover new therapies and treatments or fix the ones we already have. The research on stem cells won’t end anytime soon, but at least we can now get further along in our theories without as many ethical questions to stand in the way.
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