Embryonic stem cells have been the gold standard for pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent means capable of differentiating into one of many cell types in the adult body. Ever since James Thomson isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998, scientists have dreamed of using embryonic stem cells to treat diseases in human patients.
However, deriving human embryonic stem cell lines requires the destruction or molestation of a human embryo, the smallest, youngest, and most vulnerable member of our community. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his colleges used genetic engineering techniques to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are very similar to embryonic stem cells in many ways. Unfortunately, the derivation of iPSCs introduces mutations into the cells.
Now, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), in Boston, in collaboration with the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, have demonstrated that any mature adult cell has the potential to be converted into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. Published in the January 30, 2014 issue of the journal Nature, this research team demonstrated in a preclinical model, a novel and unique way to reprogram cells. They called this phenomenon stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Importantly, this process does not require the introduction of new outside DNA, which is required for the reprogramming process that produces iPSCs.
“It may not be necessary to create an embryo to acquire embryonic stem cells. Our research findings demonstrate that creation of an autologous pluripotent stem cell – a stem cell from an individual that has the potential to be used for a therapeutic purpose – without an embryo, is possible. The fate of adult cells can be drastically converted by exposing mature cells to an external stress or injury. This finding has the potential to reduce the need to utilize both embryonic stem cells and DNA-manipulated iPS cells,” said senior author Charles Vacanti, MD, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine and Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at BWH and senior author of the study. “This study would not have been possible without the significant international collaboration between BWH and the RIKEN Center,” he added.
The inspiration for this research was an observation in plant cells – the ability of a plant callus, which is made by an injured plant, to grow into a new plant. These relatively dated observations led Vacanti and his collaborators to suggest that any mature adult cell, once differentiated into a specific cell type, could be reprogrammed and de-differentiated through a natural process that does not require inserting genetic material into the cells.
“Could simple injury cause mature, adult cells to turn into stem cells that could in turn develop into any cell type?” hypothesized the Vacanti brothers.
Vacanti and others used cultured, mature adult cells. After stressing the cells almost to the point of death by exposing them to various stressful environments including trauma, a low oxygen and acidic environments, researchers discovered that within a period of only a few days, the cells survived and recovered from the stressful stimulus by naturally reverting into a state that is equivalent to an embryonic stem cell. With the proper culture conditions, those embryonic-like stem cells were propagated and when exposed to external stimuli, they were then able to redifferentiate and mature into any type of cell and grow into any type of tissue.
To examine the growth potential of these STAP cells, Vacanti and his team used mature blood cells from mice that had been genetically engineered to glow green under a specific wavelength of light. They stressed these cells from the blood by exposing them to acid, and found that in the days following the stress, these cells reverted back to an embryonic stem cell-like state. These stem cells then began growing in spherical clusters (like plant callus tissue). The cell clusters were introduced into developing mouse embryos that came from mice that did not glow green. These embryos now contained a mixture of cells (a “chimera”). The implanted clusters were able to differentiate into green-glowing tissues that were distributed in all organs tested, confirming that the implanted cells are pluripotent.
Thus, external stress might activate unknown cellular functions that set mature adult cells free from their current commitment to a particular cell fate and permit them to revert to their naïve cell state.
“Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation,” said Vacanti.
Of course, the next step is to explore this process in more sophisticated mammals, and, ultimately in humans.
“If we can work out the mechanisms by which differentiation states are maintained and lost, it could open up a wide range of possibilities for new research and applications using living cells. But for me the most interesting questions will be the ones that let us gain a deeper understanding of the basic principles at work in these phenomena,” said first author Haruko Obokata, PhD.
If human cells can be made into embryonic stem cells by a similar process, then someday, a simple skin biopsy or blood sample might provide the material to generate embryonic stem cells that are specific to each individual, without the need for genetic engineering or killing the smallest among us. This truly creates endless possibilities for therapeutic options.