New Technology Reprograms Skin Fibroblasts

Fibroblasts are one of the main components of connective tissue, which is the main reason scientists typically exploit them for experiments. A collaborative team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have invented a way to reprogram fibroblasts without going through a pluripotent stage.

The senior author of this study, Xiaowei Xu, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said, “Through direct reprogramming, we do not have to go through the pluripotent stem cell stage, but directly convert fibroblasts to melanocytes . So these cells do not have tumorigenicity” (the ability to cause tumors).

Melanocytes are found in the skin and they are responsible for the pigment in our skin. They are in the uppermost layer of the skin, known as the epidermis, and produce melanin, a brown pigment that helps screen against the harmful effects of UV light.

Turning a fibroblast into a melanocytes might seem trivial for a stem cell scientist; just reprogram the fibroblast into an induced pluripotent stem cells and then differentiate it into a melanocytes. However, this procedure utilized direct reprogramming, in which the fibroblast was converted into a melanocytes without traversing through the pluripotent stage. The difficultly with direct reprogramming is finding the right cocktail of genes and/or growth factors that will accomplish the deed.

Xu and his colleagues began their search by examining the genes that are specific to melanocytes. They found 10 different transcription factors that are important for melanocytes development. Next they screened these ten genes for their ability to convert a fibroblast into a melanocytes. They found that of the ten melanocytes-specific genes, three of them, Sox10, MITF, and PAX3 could do the job effectively. They called this gene combination “SMP3.”

When Xu and others tested SMP3 on mouse embryonic fibroblasts, they quickly expressed melanocytes-specific genes. When Xu’s group used SMP3 on human fetal dermal cells, once again, the cells rapidly differentiated into melanocytes. Xu and his team referred to these cells as hi-Mel, which is short for human, induced melanocytes.

When hi-Mel were grown in culture they produced melanin a plenty. When they were implanted into the skin of pigmentless mice, once again they rose to the challenge and made a great deal of pigment. Thus hi-Mel express the same genes as melanocytes and they behave for all intents and purposes as melanocytes.

Xu and his colleagues think that their procedure might be able to treat human patients with a condition called vitiligo in which the skin has patches that are devoid of pigment.

Another potential use of this technology is a way to effectively study melanoma, one of the most dangerous skin cancers known to human medicine. My good friend and SAU colleague died over a year ago from melanoma and having better ways to treat this monster would have been marvelous for Charlie, and his family, who miss him dearly. By generating melanocytes from the fibroblasts of melanoma patients, they can “screen not only to find why these patients easily develop melanoma, but possibly use their cells to screen for small compounds that can prevent melanoma from happening.”.

Also, because so the body contains so many fibroblasts in the first place, this reprogramming technique is well-suited for other cell-based treatments.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).