Since the discovery of stem cells and their unique ability to develop into any type of cell necessary for any type of human function, many have dreamed of ways to use this ability in novel ways. From curing the uncurable like Parkinson disease or cancer, to developing non-invasive organ transplantation, this ability had to be harnessed. Yet, due to the heated debate between scientists on the ethical manner of extracting embryonic cells from an early-stage embryo, also known as blastocyst, this practice became controversial and restricted, and in some cases even illegal.
If stem cells cannot be extracted from an embryo during its early stage of development, can they be taken from an adult/already developed human? Embryonic cells harvest the unique ability to differentiate due to their need to develop into any organ or part of the human body. Yet, an adult body is already developed, so how can these be extracted?
In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka and John B. Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Psychology or Medicine for discovering how to turn an adult cell back into pluripotent stem cell (EuroStemCell, 2012). This was the introduction of induced stem cells (iPS cells) that are mature cells that have been reprogramed. This discovery found that by reactivating four genes in a specialized adult cell we can cause the cell to turn back into an embryonic-like pluripotent stem cell that can potentially become cells such as fibroblasts, nerve, and gut cells. MYC, KLF, SOX, OCT genes are delivered into the cells by viruses, causing the cell to produce specific proteins that enter the cell’s DNA converting the cell into an iPS cell.
Not only had this ground-breaking discovery proved that specialised cells are not irreversible and can transform into their original form under strict circumstances, but it has also introduced a new way of treating different diseases and conducting drug research. Induced pluripotent stem cells obtained from patients with diseases allow scientists to test and develop new drugs, potentially sparking hope for the currently uncurable diseases. Furthermore, this discovery may soon allow us to develop transplant tissue with a perfect genetic match to the patient in a minimally invasive way. This is currently a major obstacle in the field of organ transplants as organs are limited and patients often face the rejection of a foreign tissue by their body.
Unfortunately, there are also obstacles that this discovery is facing. The procedure of growing and developing as well as transforming the iPS cells is costly and takes numerous weeks. As a result of the extensive time frame of this procedure, it is not effective when attempting to treat patients who require immediate organ transplants such as patients suffering from heart attacks.
Nevertheless, Induced Stem cells have and will continue to enhance the development of the medical field, in areas ranging from organ transplantation to more successful drug development. The unique ability to differentiate after reprogramming from their original specification is an ability that will save many lives.