Scientists Discover New Ways to Make Stem Cells

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Scientists have reported a new way to make safe embryonic –like stem cells which may bring them one step closer to developing cells that can alter conditions such as Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease. This new technique was reported today in Science and showed they can use viruses that create stem cells but do not alter the cellular DNA. By avoiding the cell’s genetic code, the safer virus does not incorporate into the cell but it still allows the reprogrammed cells to possess the qualities of embryonic stem cells and develop into all types of tissue.

With continued controversy surrounding therapies based on embryonic stem cells, scientists have been trying to make cells that behave like stem cells without creating or destroying an embryo. Embryonic stem cells are the precursor to all the organs, tissue and blood in the body.

Scientists around the world have worked on developing cells that behave like pluripotent cells but they have previously required using a retrovirus that integrated into the cellular DNA. The four transformative genes called Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc have been shown to be enough to change cells to an embryonic like state. But the retrovirus needed to incorporate these genes into the cell caused cancer or other unwanted genetic changes.

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Harvard researchers, lead by Konrad Hochedlinger, have found a new type of transport vehicle, an adenovirus, that avoids the genetic damage but allows the same transformation into an embryonic-like stem cell. This common cold virus does not alter the cell genome and provides a safer way to create stem cells. The virus carries the four essential transcription factors into the cell but the researchers proved you don’t need integration of the virus into the genome to produce induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS).

This breakthrough in mice will allow other scientists to improve techniques for coaxing these cells into organs for therapies. It has only been a year since iPS cells were discovered and the new safe cell is a major refinement in the goal to develop cells that do not require the “gold-standard” embryonic cells.

The public information released from the Harvard University reports that the "leaders of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) and Harvard President Drew Faust hailed advances in the last year as significant steps in the drive to understand and one day treat these diseases, which afflict millions around the world.

"Among the advances they cited are a treatment that cured a form of muscular dystrophy in mice, the production of stem cell lines from patients suffering 10 different diseases, the creation of nerve cells from patients suffering Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the direct conversion of mouse pancreatic cells into the insulin-producing beta cells destroyed in diabetes."

Next steps will be to reproduce the findings in human cells and prove that the pluripotent stem cells are as potent as embryonic stem cells.

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