Stem cell researchers at the University of California, San Diego have designed a simple, reproducible, RNA-based method of generating human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This new technique broad applications for the successful production of iPSCs for use in therapies and human stem cell studies.
Human iPSCs are made from adult cells by genetically engineering adult cells to overexpress four different genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc). This overexpression drives the cells to de-differentiate into pluripotent stem cells that have many of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells, which are made from embryos. However, because iPSCs are made from the patient’s own cells, the chances that the immune system of the patient will reject the implanted cells is low.
The problem comes with the overexpression of these four genes. Initially, retroviruses have been used to reprogram the adult cells. Unfortunately, retroviruses plop their DNA right into the genome of the host cell, and this change is permanent. If these genes get stuck in the middle of another gene, then that cell has suffered a mutation. Secondly, if these genes are stuck near another highly-expressed gene, then they too might be highly expressed, thus driving the cells to divide uncontrollably.
Several studies have shown that in order to reprogram these cells, these four genes only need to be overexpressed transiently. Therefore, laboratories have developed ways of reprogramming adult cells that do not use retroviruses. Plasmid-based systems have been used, adenovirus and Sendai virus-based systems, which do not integrate into the genome of the host cell, have also been used, and even RNA has been used (see Federico González, Stéphanie Boué & Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, Nature Reviews Genetics 12, 231-242).
The UC San Diego team led by Steven Dowdy has used Venezuelan equine virus (VEE) that they engineered to express the reprogramming genes required to make iPSCs from adult cells. Because this virus does not integrate into the host genome, and expresses RNA in the host cell only transiently, it seems to be a safe and effective way to make buckets of messenger RNA over a short period of time.
The results were impressive. The use of this souped-up VEE produced good-quality iPSCs very efficiently. Furthermore, it worked on old and young human cells, which is important, since those patients who will need regenerative medicine are more likely to be young patients than old patients. Also, changing the reprogramming factors is rather easy to do as well.