Introducing a handful of genes to adult cells can turn them into pluripotent stem cells, which can develop into any other cell. Houston Methodist researchers have unpacked the mechanism by which this pluripotency is induced.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have tremendous promise: They could be used to generate new tissues and organs for transplantation, and because they are made from adult cells, they could be used to grow genetically matched organs for individual patients. But scientists working on stem cell therapies have struggled with quality control.
The Houston Methodist team, led by John Cooke, chair of cardiovascular sciences at Houston Methodist Research Institute, discovered that activating innate immunity boosts nuclear reprogramming, the first step in developing new tissues from a single cell.
"We found that activating the innate immune system opens up the DNA," said Cooke, the study's senior author, in a statement. "This open state enhances the formation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) or cells that can have the ability to regenerate into other cell types and tissues, such as that of the brain, heart or liver." (See video below for further details.)
No iPSC-based therapy has earned FDA approval, but the technology has become important in drug discovery and disease modeling.
Several companies are working on tissue regeneration, including Johnson & Johnson and Orthocell, which recently teamed up to develop a stem cell-based approach to grow tendons. In December, BlueRock Therapeutics reeled in $225 million to advance its iPSC-based therapies. Meanwhile, researchers at New York University and the University of Colorado at Boulder pinpointed a gene in mice that prompts the repair of injured muscle by adult stem cells.
While Cooke’s findings have obvious implications for growing artificial tissues and organs, the research could also be useful for any situation where “a cell faces a challenge,” Cooke said. His team plans to apply the activation of innate immunity to the regeneration of damaged tissues to improve wound healing, or to promote recovery after a heart attack.