Since 2006, stem cell researchers have succeeded in generating induced pluripotent cells (iPS cells) from mature, adult cells. These cells have enormous potential applications, particularly for regenerative medicine. However, the process by which these cells are made still requires further tweaking in order to increase its efficiency and safety. Recently, two teams of researchers from Inserm, CNRS, Centre Léon Bérard and Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University have discovered a molecule that seems to favor the production of iPS cells. Their work was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Reprogramming an already specialized cell into a pluripotent stem cell was discovered in 2006 by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. His iPS cells were capable of differentiating into any type of cell from the human body. Yamanaka and his colleagues made iPS cells by introducing into adult cells a cocktail of four genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc). iPS cells, like embryonic stem cells, which are made from human embryos, are pluripotent, which means that they can differentiate into any mature adult cell type. iPS cells represent a promising medical advance, since they might be able to ultimately replace diseased organs with new organs that were derived from the patient’s own cells. Such technology will create tissues and organs that match the tissue types of the patient from whom the adult cells were isolated, which would eliminate all risks of transplantation rejection. The use of iPS cells would also circumvent the inherent ethical problems raised by the use of embryonic stem cells, which are derived from the destruction of human embryos.
Despite this success, cell reprogramming is besets by some problems. First of all, it is not terribly efficient; many cells undergo programmed cell death and this restricts the number of iPS cells produced. To increase the efficiencies of iPS cell production, Fabrice Lavial’s team, in collaboration with Patrick Mehlen’s team, identified new regulators of the derivation of iPS cells. They examined those genes that are regulated by the four inducing genes involved in the initiation of reprogramming. From this list of genes, they selected those genes known to have a role in programmed cell death, and whose expression varies over the course of reprogramming. This screening process yielded a gene that encodes a protein called netrin-1.
Netrin-1 is a protein naturally secreted by the body. Interestingly, netrin-1 can prevent programmed cell death, among other things. In the early days of reprogramming mouse cells, the researchers observed that their production of netrin-1 was strongly reduced, which limited the efficacy of the reprogramming process. Next, these research teams tested the effects of adding extra netrin-1 to cells during the early phases of reprogramming. This increased the quantity of iPS cells produced from mouse cells. When they repeated this experiment with human cells, the reprogramming process generated fifteen times more iPS cells than those produced by protocols without added netrin-1.
From a therapeutic point of view, it was important to determine whether this treatment affected the quality of cell reprogramming. Genomic tests, however, failed to show any deleterious effects of the use of netrin-1 on reprogrammed cells. “According to several verifications, netrin-1 treatment does not seem to have any impact on the genomic stability the iPS cells or on their ability to differentiate into other tissues,” says Fabrice Lavial, Inserm Research Fellow.
These research teams continue to test the effects of netrin-1 on the reprogramming of other types of cells. They would like to gain a better understanding of the mode of action of this molecule in stem cell physiology.