IPS Cells May Hold Treatment for Sickle Cell Anemia

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Oct 4, 2011   |   12:24PM   |   Washington, DC

Researchers are on the path to using both gene therapy and induced pluriopotent stem cell technology (iPSC) together to create a possible treatment for sickle cell anemia. 

Sickle cell is a recessive genetic disorder that is cause by a single base mutation in the gene for hemoglobin.  This single base mutation changes the shape of the hemoglobin molecule which causes red blood cells to collapse into a sickle shape.  This sickle shaped red blood cells clog blood vessels causing pain, infections, organ damage and death.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have taken a sickle cell patient’s own bone marrow cells and reprogrammed them into pluripotent stem cells.  They then introduced a healthy copy of the hemoglobin gene into those induced stem cells.  Those genetically engineered stem cells where then coaxed into becoming immature red blood cells than produced normal hemoglobin.  Researchers now need to work on fully maturing these engineered cells so they will produce normals levels of hemoglobin.  And while this technique is years away from treating patients it is a promising, and ethical approach, to treating this devastating disease.

From Medical News Today:

Using a patient’s own stem cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins have corrected the genetic alteration that causes sickle cell disease (SCD), a painful, disabling inherited blood disorder that affects mostly African-Americans. The corrected stem cells were coaxed into immature red blood cells in a test tube that then turned on a normal version of the gene….

Using one adult patient at The Johns Hopkins Hospital as their first case, the researchers first isolated the patient’s bone marrow cells. After generating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – adult cells that have been reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells – from the bone marrow cells, they put one normal copy of the hemoglobin gene in place of the defective one using genetic engineering techniques. The beauty of iPS cells is that we can grow a lot of them and then coax them into becoming cells of any kind, including red blood cells,” Cheng said.

In their process, his team converted the corrected iPS cells into immature red blood cells by giving them growth factors. Further testing showed that the normal hemoglobin gene was turned on properly in these cells, although at less than half of normal levels. “We think these immature red blood cells still behave like embryonic cells and as a result are unable to turn on high enough levels of the adult hemoglobin gene,” explains Cheng. “We next have to learn how to properly convert these cells into mature red blood cells.”

LifeNews.com Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).