cancer, disease, medicine, stem cells, technology

Recent Breakthroughs with Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

It’s exciting times if you’re an induced pluripotent stem cell (also called an iPSC). OK, so maybe these stem cells don’t actually feel excitement, but there’s still some amazing progress being made with iPSCs. This includes making functional livers out of them, modifying them to attack cancerous tumors, and using them in their first clinical trials.

But maybe we should take a step back first – what exactly are these cells and why should you care about them? Induced pluripotent stem cells are stem cells that have the ability to, theoretically, turn into any cell type of the adult body. In this way, they’re like human embryonic stem cells (called hESCs for short). Because of this ability, both of these cell types have great potential for making lab-grown tissues and organs needed in transplants.

human embryonic stem cell colony
Induced pluripotent stem cells look and behave just like human embryonic stem cells (which are shown here, as a cluster of cells in the middle). The main difference between these two cell types is their origins, which affects how they can be used for treatments. (Image credit: ld711)

But, unlike hESCs, the iPSCs can possibly be made out of any cells from a person’s body – ones that may not be missed much, such as from blood or fat tissue samples. (hESCs can only be made from early-stage embryos, called blastocysts.) How does this work? By forcing “normal” adult cells to make certain proteins that are essential for the hESC identity, those adult cells can turn into iPSCs. This means that not only is it easier to get cells to make iPSCs, but iPSCs can also potentially be patient-specific, bypassing immune rejection problems that often arise with transplants. Making iPSCs using human cells was demonstrated for the first time in 2007, and the research community has made amazing progress since then.

In just the last few months, there have been several impressive breakthroughs made using iPSCs – read on for the details:

human embryonic stem cell colony
For someone who has age-related macular degeneration, a grid of lines may look like this. (Image credit: National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health)

iPSCs are definitely going places, and getting there fast! With continued support and funding, these cells will likely show up in many useful treatments in the near future.

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