Stem cells: What if we could make them more easily?

December 3, 2012 | by Shawn Le

Adult cells, such as those from skin or blood, can be reprogrammed to become induced pluripotent stem cells.

Stem cells’ ability to develop into different types of cells makes them potential cures or treatments for a host of illnesses, including many cancers and genetic diseases. But such cells -- even the induced pluripotent stem cells created from normal adult cells -- are in short supply.

Now City of Hope researchers appear to have found a way to create stem cells more easily, suggesting future increases in the supply necessary for additional research and, maybe, cures.

In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead investigator Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., and researchers in her lab identified small molecules that appear to improve the efficiency of stem cell manufacturing.

"The major advantage of induced pluripotent stem cells is that they can be derived from somatic cells, such as skin and blood," said Shi, associate professor in City of Hope's Department of Neurosciences. "In addition, these stem cells can be derived from the patient's own skin or blood samples. The genetically corrected patient stem cells have the potential to treat the disease without much concerns of rejection by the patient's immune system."

In her research, Shi found a compound that activates a specific protein crucial to DNA replication. By simply adding it to the existing reprogramming cocktail, Shi saw that "it enhanced reprogramming efficiency more than 100-fold compared to the efficiency rate of the current process."

Similar to traditional industrial manufacturing, increasing the yield of products (in this case, stem cells) can help keep manufacturing costs down while ensuring enough supply to meet demand. An improved reprogramming process for turning adult cells into stem cells would create ample material for research, as well as meet potential demand for approved treatments.

City of Hope has a long history of overcoming the practical hurdles that can slow research and development of breakthrough treatments. In 1985, researchers devised a way to use recombinant DNA technology to efficiently manufacture new treatments. This advance kick-started the biotech industry, and City of Hope's work eventually led to life-saving cancer drugs such as Herceptin and Avastin.

Just as recombinant DNA technology enabled improved disease treatments, her stem-cell reprogramming research could have practical potential as well, Shi hopes. In the study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she wrote:

"Induced pluripotent stem cells provide great hope not only for basic biology by providing experimental model systems, but also for disease prevention and treatment via stem cell-based cell replacement therapy and stem cell-based drug discovery."

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