September 24, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Induced Stem Cells Get Faster, Better, Cheaper

Scientists have not only made the production of induced pluripotent stem cells much more efficient, but also have made them just as capable as embryonic stem cells of being able to produce any cell type.

They keep getting better and better: induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs.  How’s this sound: “made with near perfect efficiency” (Nature News).  Science Daily adds that the process has sped up from 1% to 100%.  It’s gone from a “frustratingly slow” process in the past to a technique now promising rapid production of the pluripotent cells for ethically-safe regenerative medicine.  Researchers at the Weizmann Institute found a protein acting like a “molecular brake” that was holding them back.  Instead of getting 1 iPSC cell out of a hundred in four weeks, every cell can be made pluripotent within one week thanks to the new discovery.  Science Magazine cautioned that removal of that protein will have to be tested for other effects, but the news is hopeful.  There’s even more hope, Science Daily said:

As an added bonus, since the cells all underwent the reprograming at the same rate, the scientists will now be able, for the first time, to actually follow it step by step and reveal its mechanisms of operation. Hanna points out that his team’s achievement was based on research into the natural pathways of embryonic development: “Scientists investigating reprograming can benefit from a deeper understanding of how embryonic stem cells are produced in nature. After all, nature still makes them best, in the most efficient manner.

Skip the side dish:  What if iPSCs could be induced while still inside the body?  That would skip the petri dish altogether.  Scientists at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center have done it, Science Daily says: induced “embryonic” stem cells right inside living mice, meaning that they are not just “pluripotent” (able to turn into many cell types) but “totipotent” (able to turn into any cell type), just like the embryonic kind.

Researchers have also discovered that these embryonic stem cells, obtained directly from the inside of the organism, have a broader capacity for differentiation than those obtained via in vitro culture. Specifically, they have the characteristics of totipotent cells: a primitive state never before obtained in a laboratory.

What this suggests is that cells in living tissue could be induced into their embryonic state and coaxed into organs to rebuild them.  “We can now start to think about methods for inducing regeneration locally and in a transitory manner for a particular damaged tissue,” a team member said.  Additionally, the induced cells can be removed for study in the petri dish if needed.

Though treatments inside the body are a ways off, this achievement offers hope for amazing cures down the road, coaxing the body’s own cells to rebuild and restore damaged organs.  PhysOrg described how the body uses 3-D signals to guide stem cells into position.  Mastering that code will allow doctors to put the cells right where they are needed.

Untold numbers of human embryos have been spared thanks to the groundbreaking achievement of Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, who figured out how to make iPSCs (8/25/06).  The progress since then has been accelerating, as these new reports show.  Just as good as embryonic stem cells without the ethical infractions, iPSCs are the cells to watch in the coming years.  Imagine restoring hearts, bones, livers, and much more with your own cells!  You can help by urging your representatives to support research with adult stem cells, and to deny funding for research with human embryos.  iPSCs sound almost too good to be true; but so far, they are true, and are getting better with each new discovery.  And what are we discovering?  Not evolution, but the sophisticated design in living cells.



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  • Gary says:

    Doesn’t inducing totipotency (rather than pluripotency) pose ethical questions that have arisen in regard to cloning? Pluripotent stem cells cannot result in a clone of the organism. The article on Science Daily hints that the CNIO study produced totipotent cells that could give rise not only to the three cell-type layers that ESCs generate but also to the extra-embryonic structures that can support the development of an embryo, such as the placenta. It seems like the researchers are almost at the point where there is no need to perform somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to clone a mammal. What else has to be done before their process (whatever it is) results in a clone without SCNT? Not being a biologist, I just don’t know. Perhaps there is still a huge gulf between where they are and where a clone is created.

    • Editor says:

      Good questions. My understanding is that it might be possible to create sperm cells via iPSC and egg cells, but not clones directly. We dealt with this possibility in an entry last month (9/01/13). That would surely cross ethical lines. Some are also trying to grow human brains in lab animals. The major benefit of iPSC is rendering ESC work unnecessary for regenerative medicine, but any new technology can be used for good or evil.

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