A Journal article in the August 9th edition of Science Magazine features work from the laboratories of Yang Zhao and Hongkui Deng, both of whom are from the College of Life Sciences and Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences at Peking University in Beijing, China. Zhao and Deng and colleagues used small molecules to transform adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells.
To review, induced pluripotent stem cells are derived from adult cells by genetically engineering the adult cells to express a cocktail of four genes (OCT4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc). To introduce these genes into cells, viruses are normally used, but other techniques are also available. The resultant cells look and act like embryonic stem cells, but they do not require the death of embryos.
In this paper, Deng and colleagues took mouse embryonic fibroblasts (skin cells cultured from mouse embryos) and used them to screen over 10,000 small molecules for their ability to substitute for the OCT4 gene in the production of iPSCs. If this sounds labor intensive, that’s because it is. To conduct the screen, they used mouse embryonic fibroblasts that were infected with viruses that expressed Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc. These genes are not enough to convert adult cells into iPSCs. However, with these chemicals, these three genes could produce iPSCs from mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs). They identified at least three molecules; Forskolin, 2-methyl-5-hydroxytryptamine and a synthetic molecule called D4476, that could substitute for OCT4.
Thus, by using chemicals, they could get away from using one of the genes required to de-differentiate adult cells into iPSCs. Could they whittle down the number of genes even further? Previously, Deng and Zhao published a paper in which a chemical cocktail was used to substitute for the other three genes so that conversion into iPSCs was achieved by introducing only the OCT4 gene into cells (Li, YQ et al., CELL RESEARCH 21(1): 196-204. They called this cocktail “VC6T.” Therefore, they used VC6T and Forskolin, on their MEFs and the beginnings of de-differentiation occurred, but not much else.
Could chemicals be identified that would take the cells the rest of the way to iPSCs? Another chemical screen examined this possibility. In this test, the MEFs were rigged so that they expressed OCT4 when the cells were treated with the antibiotic doxycycline. By giving the cells doxycycline for 4-8 days, and then testing chemicals to take the cells the rest of the way, they identified a slew of compounds that, when given to the OCT4-expressing MEFs, they became iPSCs.
Then came the real test – make iPSCs with just chemicals and no introduced genes. Could it be done? When they gave the MEFs some of the chemicals identified in the last screen (they called it DZNep), plus VC6T, the expression of OCT4 went up, but the cells simply did not look like iPSCs. So, they changed the culture medium to a “2i” culture system that inhibits some key regulatory proteins in the cells. When they used this same chemical cocktail in a 2i culture system, it worked and iPSCs were produced. Deng and Zhao called these stem cells “chemically induced pluripotent stem cells” or CiPSCs.
Next, they optimized the dosages of these chemicals in order to increase the efficiency of iPSC production. They were able to increase the efficiency of iPSC production to 5% (1 of every 20 colonies of cells), which is respectable. They also identified yet another small molecule that beefed up iPSC production by another 40-fold. Also, this chemical cocktail was able to make iPSCs from mouse adult fibroblasts, fat-derived stem cells, and fibroblasts from newly born mice.
When the CiPSC lines were characterized, they made all the right genes to be designated as pluripotent stem cells, and they had normal numbers of normal-looking chromosomes all the way through 13 passages.
When injected into mice with dysfunctional immune systems, the CiPSCs made tumors that were mixtures of tissues of all over the body. When they were transferred into early mouse embryos, they could contribute to the bodies of developing mice, and they could even contribute to the production of eggs and sperm, When baby mice were completely made from CiPSCs, those mice were fertile and had babies of their own. This is the ultimate test of pluripotency and the CiPSCs passed it with flying colors.
Other experiments in this paper examined why these chemicals induced pluripotency in adult cells, but these experiments, though interesting, are lost in the fact that this research group has generated iPSCs without using any viruses, or genetic engineering technology. These CiPSCs are true pluripotent stem cells and they were generated without killing any embryos or introducing genes that might drive cells to become abnormal.
If this can be replicated with human cells, it would be earth-shattering for regenerative medicine.