BioBasics: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells - Part 2


Part 2 - 

Last time, we talked about an amazing new development in ethical stem cell research. I described a new technique that increases the efficiency of producing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to almost 100%. This is a way to generate embryo-like stem cells, without creating or destroying any embryos. These iPSCs are pluripotent, just like stem cells harvested from human embryos, which means they can develop into any tissue in the human body. Pluripotency is considered the ultimate prize for stem cell researchers.

Adult stem cell clinical trials are yielding some impressive results in treating diseases ranging from leukemia to heart disease. These therapies use stem cells from the patient’s own body. Although they are not considered pluripotent, they are effective in multiple tissue types. Bone marrow stem cells are used to treat leukemia and bone and blood cancers. Adult stem cells avoid problems that occur with embryonic stem cells, such as tissue rejection and tumor formation. Their potential for regenerative medicine seems limitless.

Meanwhile, scientists have not given up on creating embryonic-like stem cells, the iPSCs. As I mentioned last time, there is a technique that increases efficiency in reprogramming normal adult cells, kind of “winding the clock back” to their pluripotent, undifferentiated state. The technique adds extra genes, and turns off another gene that acts like brakes. With the brakes off, the cell’s pluripotency can be reactivated.  It’s good news, but may not have solved the problem of increased risk of tumors and cancers.

In mid-2013, scientists announced success with using a cocktail of seven chemical compounds to get adult cells to reprogram, turning them into iPSCs. These cells produced all major cell types in the mouse embryos that were created. They were found in the liver, heart, brain, skin, and muscle cells of the mice.[1]

The chemical compounds that are used seem to be safe, in that they “easily pass through cell membranes, so they can be washed away after they have initiated the reprogramming.”[2] By using chemicals instead of viruses and DNA, there is little risk for causing mutations that increase the risk of tumors or cancer from iPSCs. For now, the experiments are limited to animal trials until they can show that the technique is truly safe, including in human cells.

And just a few weeks ago, scientists announced that they could manipulate the cells’ physical environment to increase reprogramming of normal adult cells to iPSCs.[3] The technique mimics the stretching environment the cell experiences in the body. Dr. Song Li, the principal investigator, said this could replace some of the chemicals used in other techniques and “coax cells to change.”[4] They hope that this will minimize invasive and artificial techniques that could cause unintended side effects.

So often Christian discussions of these types of issues are caricatured as being a war on science. We can celebrate this ethical research that expands basic knowledge and the quality of our lives. It demonstrates the amazing potential of our God-given creativity.

[1] David Cyranoski, “Stem Cells Reprogrammed Using Chemicals Alone,” Nature, July 18, 2013, (accessed July 19, 2013).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sarah Yang, “Physical Cues Help Mature Cells Revert into Embryonic-Like Stem Cells,” UC Berkeley News Center, October 20, 2013, (accessed October 28, 2013).

[4] Ibid.


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