When I first learned about Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells it was hard to believe. Science has figured out a way to scrape off a few of your skin cells, reprogram those cells into stem cells and then turn those stem cells into any cell in your body, essentially turning mature adult cells back into new born tissue. The discovery was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012 and has lead many in the medical community to believe that if we can turn cells back in time and restore their youth, might we one day be able to do the same thing with the rest of our bodies?
Like all great discoveries, it takes time to go from the lab to the clinic, but IPS cells have the potential to revolutionize how medicine is practiced and help open up whole new healthcare industries. The current one-size-fits-all approach to medicine, where a single drug is produced to treat everyone with a certain disease, will be supplanted by drugs and therapies tailored specifically for each persons unique condition and genetic makeup. These new industries have been dubbed regenerative medicine and personalized medicine.
One therapy at the heart of these new advances is stem cells. In the past most stem cell research was done using embryonic stem cells(ESCs) taken from fetal tissue. Today more and more researchers are turning to IPS cells because with ESCs patients have to take harmful immuno-suppressors to prevent their bodies immune systems from attacking the new foreign cells. But IPS cells are derived from the patients themselves and thus share the same DNA as the rest of the cells in the patients body so there is no immune response. Also because they have the same DNA they tend to work better when transplanted back into the body. Additionally there are less ethical concerns as no fetal tissue is involved.
I first learned about the magic of IPS cells on a tour of Dr. Jeanne Loring’s lab at Scripps in San Diego where the team at the Summit for Stem Cells lab is working on a novel Parkinson’s disease therapy. Using IPS cells taken from patients they are able to grow dopamine producing neurons and then transplant those cells back into the patients’ brains to replace the cells that the disease killed. Such novel treatments have the potential to be a key step in developing a cure for such neurodegenerative disorders.
I then toured Dr. Steven Finkbeiner’s lab at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco. One of the big problems the scientific community faces when trying to tackle complex disorders such as cancer or neurological disorders is that we simply do not have adequate models to test new therapies on. Dr. Finkbeiner and his lab are trying to solve this problem with IPS cells along with the application of machine learning. In partnership with Google they have developed a machine that does all the lab work autonomously and takes detailed microscopic pictures of the cells at every step as they grow from skin cells to stem cells to whatever cell they will be. Algorithms then analyze those pictures and look for patterns to characterize them with far more accuracy than any human ever could. Also since they are the patients own cells, it is believed that any treatments applied to them will have a far greater chance of being effective in the actual patient.
Much is also being done at the McEwen Center in the heart of Toronto’s new biotech hub centered around the aptly named Mars building. There, under Dr. Gordon Keller, IPS cells are being grown into everything from kidney to lung cells in the hope that they will be able to develop promising new therapies for a wide range of diseases. While there I got to see 13 day old heart cells under a microscope, quite a sight to see cells that not long ago were part of a person’s skin now beating in a dish. The lab just partnered with Bayer Pharmaceutics to the tune of 225 million dollars to turn Toronto into a global hub for regenerative medicine.
There is a great deal of hype in the medical community surrounding IPS cells. Only time will tell how much of it is real but in the meantime the future of medicine looks more promising than ever.