Scientists Reprogram Adult Cells to a Pluripotent State

Bioethics   Rebecca Taylor   Jul 24, 2013   |   4:40PM    Tokyo, Japan

This is big news in the stem cell arena.

Scientists from China have reprogrammed adult mouse cells to a pluripotent state with a few chemicals. Previously, researchers used genes inserted into the cells by an engineered virus which raised concerns about the safety of the technique for use in treating patients. But now these small molecules can cross the cell membrane without the aid of a virus and can reprogram the cell without the insertion of genes. The Scientist has the details:

Scientists first developed the ability to reprogram somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells—cells that could give rise to any of the body’s cells types—in 2006. However, the technique has required the insertion of “master genes” that could increase the risk of mutations and cancer, limiting its potential clinical applications. A new study published Thursday (July 18) in Science demonstrates the creation of pluripotent stem cells in mice using a cocktail of small molecule compounds that can substitute for the potentially dangerous genes.

Though scientists have steadily reduced the need for additional genes to trigger pluripotency, one gene, Oct4, has been indispensable. Researchers led by Hongkui Deng at Peking University spent a year screening 10,000 compounds that would facilitate the reprogramming of mouse somatic cells into pluripotent cells without the need of Oct4. They identified a combination of seven small-molecule compounds that created pluripotent cells at a frequency of 0.2 percent, a rate comparable to the yield using gene insertion. The team dubbed its cellular creations chemically induced pluripotent stem cells (CiPSCs).

So CiPSCs are an improvement over previous methods to induce pluripotency. The next step is to try the technique in human cells and see if it works.

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This may also eliminate a pro-life objection to iPCs. While iPCs provided an important viable alternative to therapeutic cloning and other embryo destructive research to obtain pluripotent stem cells, the viruses used to induce pluripotency in previous research were grown in a cell line that came from an elective abortion performed in the 1970s. The fact that researchers have used this cell line morally tainted the very important breakthrough. If viruses are no longer needed and researchers did not use cell lines of illicit origin in their work, it is possible that particular moral stain on induced pluripotent stem cells can be eliminated.