A team from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) has become the first research team to convert adult cells that are still within a living organism into cells that show characteristics of embryonic stem cells.
The CNIO researchers also say that these embryonic stem cells, which were obtained directly from inside an organism, have a broader capacity for differentiation than those obtained by means of an in vitro culture system. Specifically, they have the characteristics of totipotent cells, a primitive state never before obtained in a laboratory, according to the CNIO team.
Manuel Serrano, Ph.D., director of CNIO’s Molecular Oncology Program and head of the Tumor Suppression Laboratory, led this study. It was supported by Manuel Manzanares, Ph.D., and his team from the Spanish National Cardiovascular Research Centre.
The CNIO researchers say their work extends that of Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D., one step forward. Yamanaka opened a new horizon in regenerative medicine when, in 2006, he demonstrated that stem cells could be created from adult cells by using a cocktail of genes. But while Yamanaka induced his cells in culture in the lab (in vitro), the CNIO team created theirs directly in mice (in vivo). Generating these cells within an organism brings this technology even closer to regenerative medicine, they say.
In a study published online Sept. 11 in the journal Nature, the CNIO research team details how it used genetic manipulation techniques to create mice in which Dr. Yamanaka’s four genes could be activated at will. When these genes were activated, they observed that the adult cells were able to de-differentiate into embryonic stem cells in multiple tissues and organs.
María Abad, Ph.D., lead author of the article and a researcher in Dr. Serrano’s group, said, “This change of direction in development has never been observed in nature. We have demonstrated that we can also obtain embryonic stem cells in adult organisms and not only in the laboratory.”
Dr. Serrano added, “We can now start to think about methods for inducing regeneration locally and in a transitory manner for a particular damaged tissue.” Stem cells obtained in mice also show totipotent characteristics never generated in a laboratory. Totipotent cells can form all the cell types in a body, including the placental cells. Embryonic cells within the first couple of cell divisions after fertilization are the only cells that are totipotent.
The researchers reported that they were also able to induce the formation of pseudo-embryonic structures in the thoracic and abdominal cavities of the mice. These pseudo-embryos displayed the three layers typical of embryos (ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm), and extra-embryonic structures such as the vitelline membrane, which surrounds the egg, and even signs of blood cell formation, which first appears in the primary embryonic vesicle (otherwise known as the “yolk sac”).
“This data tell us that our stem cells are much more versatile than Dr. Yamanaka’s in vitro inducted pluripotent stem cells, whose potency generates the different layers of the embryo but never tissues that sustain the development of a new embryo, like the placenta,” the CNIO researcher said. Below is a figure from their paper. The pictures look pretty convincing.
The researchers emphasize that any possible therapeutic applications of their work are still distant, but they believe that it could mean a change of direction for stem cell research, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.
“Our stem cells also survive outside of mice in a culture, so we can also manipulate them in a laboratory,” said Dr. Abad. “The next step is studying if these new stem cells are capable of efficiently generating different tissues such as that of the pancreas, liver or kidney.”
This paper is very interesting, but I find it rather unlikely that their approach will take regenerative medicine by storm. Engineering mice to express these four genes in an inducible manner caused the formation of unusual tumors throughout the mice. Maybe they can be coaxed to differentiate into kidney or heart muscle or whatever, but learning how to get them to do that will take a fair amount of in vitro work. This is interesting, but I doubt that it will change the field overnight.