A new study from the laboratory of Miguel Ramalho-Santos, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), might lead to a faster way to derive stem cells that can be used for regenerative therapies.
Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, which are made from adult cells by means of genetic engineering and cell culture techniques, behave much like embryonic stem cells. These adult cell-derived stem cells are pluripotent and can be differentiated into heart, liver, nerve and muscle cells. This present work by Ramalho-Santos and his colleagues builds upon the reprogramming protocols that have been developed to de-differentiate mature adults cells into iPSCs.
Ramalho-Santos and his co-workers have been interested in understanding the reprogramming process more completely in order to increase the efficiency and safety of this process. In particular, the Ramalho-Santos laboratory has been examining the cellular barriers that prevent adult cells from being reprogrammed in order to circumvent them and increase the efficiency of stem-cell production. In this present work, Ramalho-Santos’ group identified many of these cellular barriers to reprogramming.
“Our new work has important implications for both regenerative medicine and cancer research,” said Ramalho-Santos, who is also a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.
In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka from Kyoto University won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of iPSCs. Yamanaka discovered ways to turn back the clock on adult cells, but the protocol that he developed and others have used for years is inefficient, slow, and tedious. The percentage of adult cells successfully converted to iPS cells is usually rather low, and the resultant cells often retain traces of their earlier lives as mature, fully-differentiated cells.
To make iPSCs, researchers force the expression of pluripotency-inducing genes in adult cells. These four genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, cMyc) have become known as the so-called “Yamanaka factors” and they work to turn back the clock on cellular maturation. However, as Ramalho-Santos explained: “From the time of the discovery of iPS cells, it was appreciated that the specialized cells from which they are derived are not a blank slate. They express their own genes that may resist or counter reprogramming.”
So what are those barriers? Ramalho-Santos continued: “Now, by genetically removing multiple barriers to reprogramming, we have found that the efficiency of generation of iPS cells can be greatly increased.” This discovery will contribute to accelerating the production of safe and efficient iPSCs and other types of other reprogrammed cells, according to Ramalho-Santos.
Instead of identifying individual genes that act as barriers to reprogramming, Ramalho-Santos and others discovered that sets of genes acted in combination to establish barriers to reprogramming. “At practically every level of a cell’s functions there are genes that act in an intricately coordinated fashion to antagonize reprogramming,” Ramalho-Santos explained. These existing mechanisms probably help mature, adult cells maintain their identities and functional roles. Ramalho-Santos explained it this way: “Much like the Red Queen running constantly to remain in the same place in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking-Glass,’ adult cells appear to put a lot of effort into remaining in the same state.” Ramalho-Santos also added that apart from maintaining the integrity of our adult tissues, the barrier genes probably serve important roles in other diseases, including in the prevention of certain cancers
To identify these barriers, Ramalho-Santos and his team had to employ cutting-edge genetic, cellular and bioinformatics technologies. They collaborated with other UCSF labs headed by Jun Song, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, and Michael McManus, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.
They conducted genome-wide RNAi screens that revealed known and novel barriers to human cell reprogramming. Of these, a protein called ADAM29 antagonizes reprogramming as does clathrin-mediated endocytosis, which antagonizes reprogramming by enhancing TGF-β signaling. Also it became apparent that different barrier pathways have a combined effect on reprogramming efficiency. Additionally, genes involved in transcription, chromatin regulation, ubiquitination, dephosphorylation, vesicular transport, and cell adhesion also act as barriers to reprogramming.
The hopes are that this knowledge will produce iPSCs faster that are safer to use and differentiate more completely.