Understanding barriers to reprogramming cells holds promise for regenerative medicine
The recent discovery that human somatic cells (the cells of the body) can be reprogrammed in the laboratory to generate pluripotent stem cells has enormous implications for regenerative medicine, a relatively young branch of biomedical research that could lead to revolutionary treatments for many chronic diseases, including cancer.
Pluripotency refers to the incredible ability of some stem cells to develop into any cell type of the body. Laboratory-generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) appear to be equivalent in every way to these “true” stem cells. The stem cells found in human adults, on the other hand, are rare, difficult to grow in large quantities in the laboratory, and have only limited differentiation potential.
But somatic cells inherently resist reprogramming of gene expression. In fact, multiple cellular mechanisms inhibit it at each phase of the multi-step process in iPSC generation. Until recently, these barriers to reprogramming were poorly understood, limiting their production.
Now researchers have for the first time systematically catalogued the barriers to reprogramming of somatic cells to generate iPSCs.
“Cells generally become committed to increasingly differentiated fates during the course of their normal development,” explains University of Illinois Founder Professor of Physics and of Bioengineering Jun Song, who is one of the lead scientists on the project, “but experimental paradigms for cellular reprogramming have shown that differentiation is reversible.”