Stem cells solve hepatitis C research dilemma

It is now possible to develop liverlike cells in the lab from stem cells derived from human tissue, and infect them with hepatitis C.

So what, you ask?

The finding, by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rockefeller University and the Medical College of Wisconsin, solves a major problem scientists face when trying to figure out why some people are susceptible to the hard-to-treat infection and others aren't. Ideally, scientists would study liver cells from affected patients in the lab, but they're hard to get and not easy to grow in a lab dish. (It turns out if you remove liver cells from the body, they lose their normal structure and don't function the same.)

So successfully growing liverlike cells from human tissue has plenty of theoretical benefits. First, having a wide variety of easily cultivated hepatitis C liver cells to study could help scientists to better understand how the infection evolves and why certain folks are far more likely to get it. This could also help patients who already have the infection. By reproducing viable liverlike cells from their tissue in the lab, doctors could theoretically test which drugs work best, and deliver a personalized treatment, the researchers argue. And controversy is all but eliminated, because embryonic stem cells aren't even part of the equation. Of course, such advances could still be years away, and several more studies will be necessary to make sure this idea is viable.

The research trio created their liverlike cells using induced pluripotent stem cells, which the National Institutes of Health describe as regular adult cells from body tissue, which scientists genetically reprogram "to an embryonic stem cell-like state." This is an apparent first for induced pluripotent stem cells, with scientists successfully infecting cells derived from them. Team members knew the experiment worked because they rigged the viruses to generate a light-producing protein as they lived through their "life cycle."

You can read the study in detail in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The collection of authors, by the way, is very much multidisciplinary: MIT health sciences/engineering/computer science professor Sangeeta Bhatia, Rockefeller virology professor Charles Rice, and Stephen Duncan, who teaches human and molecular genetics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

- here's the release
- read the PNAS abstract

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