When Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues at the RIKEN Institute discovered a way to reprogram adult cells into embryonic stem cell-like cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), they overthrew a core understanding of cell and developmental biology; namely that once cells become committed to a particular cell fate, they irreversibly remain committed to that cell fate.
Most of the work on iPSCs has examined how to increase the efficiency and safety of this reprogramming procedure. The slowness and inefficiency of this process has frustrated stem cell scientists for some time. Even though some progress has been made at increasing the efficiency of the reprogramming process, the “nuts and bolts” of why this procedure is so slow has remained unclear.
However a recent paper from the laboratory of Shangqin Guo at the Yale School of Medicine has revealed a key component of why this procedure is so slow. That component is the speed of the cell cycle or the length of time the cell takes to divide.
Fast-growing cells have lower barriers to keeping the cell committed to a particular cell fate. Thus faster-growing cells are more easily coaxed into being reprogrammed into pluripotency (the ability to differentiate into all adult cell types).
Guo’s research team examined blood cell-forming stem cells in bone marrow. Normally these stem cells are multipotent, which means that they can differentiate into a limited number of adult cell types. The particular type of blood cells that the progeny of these stem cells differentiate into depends on the particular types of growth factors available to the cells.
Guo and others found that these fast growing bone marrow stem cells could be reprogrammed in as little as four cell divisions. Ultrafast cell cycle is a key feature of these “privileged cells” that can be reprogrammed to efficiently. Slower-growing stem cells could not be reprogrammed nearly as fast. Thus the length of the cell cycle seemed to be the key to the speed with which cells could be reprogrammed to iPSCs.
This study also has implications for several other applications, besides making individualized iPSCs for patients. Several human diseases are associated with abnormalities in the establishment of proper cell fates and abnormalities in the cell cycle. Therefore, Guo’s paper could provide insights into why certain genetic diseases affect cells the way they do.