RESEARCHERS AT THE UCLA Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine (now named the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA) have found a new technique for reprogramming cells that may sidestep controversial cloning methods to allow another way to develop human-embryonic stem-cell lines.
Working closely with colleagues at Harvard, the UCLA scientists converted normal tissue cells from a mouse to cells with the same unlimited properties as embryonic stem cells, the cells that give rise to every cell type found in the body. Experimenting with mouse fibroblasts – cells that develop into connective tissue – the scientists added four transcription factors that changed the cells into pluripotent cells “virtually indistinguishable” from embryonic stem cells, explains co-lead author Dr. Kathrin Plath, an assistant professor of biological chemistry and an institute researcher. “We could find no evidence that they were different in any way. We were rather surprised at how well this reprogramming worked,” Dr. Plath says.
Last year, Japanese scientists discovered that the four transcription factors or genes could revert mouse skin cells to partially pluripotent cells. But scientists at UCLA and other university labs modified their procedure and were the first to reprogram the cells so they were identical to embryonic stem cells. Reprogramming adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells could generate a potentially limitless source of immune-compatible cells for tissue engineering and transplantation medicine. If the work can be replicated in human cells, it may mean that a patient’s skin cells, for example, could be reprogrammed to become embryonic stem cells that could then be prodded into becoming beta islet cells to treat diabetes, hematopoetic cells to create a new blood supply for a leukemia patient or motor neuron cells to treat Parkinson’s disease. This new technique could provide an alternative to somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as therapeutic cloning, a controversial method used to reprogram cells. SCNT has not yet been successfully accomplished with human cells.
Dr. Plath and her colleagues are now working to recreate the cell reprogramming in human cells, but it could take years to determine if the process is successful.