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Induced pluripotent stem cell mysteries explored by Stanford researchers

Induced pluripotent stem cells, also called iPS cells, made from easily accessible skin or other adult cells, are ideal for disease modeling, drug discovery and, possibly, cell therapy. That's because they can be generated in large numbers and grown indefinitely in the laboratory. They also reflect the genetic background of the person from whom they were generated. However, some fundamental questions still remain before they're ready for the full glare of the clinical limelight. Does it matter what type of starting cells scientists use to create the pluripotent stem cells? And what's the best control to use when studying the effect of a particular, patient-specific mutation?

Now Stanford cardiologist Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, and his colleagues have addressed and answered these questions. Their work was published yesterday in two back-to-back papers in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (Each paper is also accompanied by an editorial.) As Wu explained in an e-mail to me:

If your goal is to generate healthy iPS cell derivatives for regenerative therapy, it's important to know whether the starting material makes a difference. For example, if I'm treating Alzheimer's disease, is there a benefit to using iPS cell-derived brain cells made from brain cells? Likewise, if I'm treating a skin disorder, is there a benefit to using iPS cell-derived skin cells made from skin cells? As cardiologists, we are asked this quite often and each time, I had to say “I don’t know." So we decided to do a study comparing the differentiation and functional ability of iPS cell-derived cardiomyocytes generated from two different sources: skin and heart. We also wanted to devise more efficient ways for researchers to quickly and easily create their own "designer" iPS cell lines to study particular mutations.

To answer the first question, the researchers created iPS cells from two types of starter cells: human fetal skin cells and cardiac progenitor cells. Not surprisingly, only the cardiac progenitor cells expressed genes known to be expressed in heart tissue. Wu and his colleagues then exposed the newly created pluripotent stem cells to growing conditions that favor the development of heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes. They found that, although iPS cells derived from cardiac progenitor cells were more efficient at becoming cardiomyocytes, both types of starting material produced heart muscle cells that functioned similarly after a period of growth in the laboratory. As Wu explained:

These two populations of cells are essentially no different from one another over time. It appears that they lost the memory of their starting material (this memory is stored in the form of chemical tags on the cells' DNA in a phenomena known as epigenetic marking). This suggests that I could take my own skin cells, make iPS cells and then create specialized brain, heart, liver or kidney cells for cell therapy. This is much easier than biopsying each tissue, and could be a good way to create universal iPS cell lines for research or cell therapy.

In the second paper, Wu and his colleagues devised a way to introduce specific mutations into iPS cells before transforming them into particular tissues. The approach relies on the use of what's known as "dominant negative" mutations that exert their disruptive effect even when the unmutated gene is still present. This is important because it's much easier and quicker than previous similar efforts, which required a complicated, time-consuming procedure to snip out and then replace individual genes. The technique also allows researchers to generate two cell lines that are identical except for the mutation under study. That way researchers can be confident that differences between the cell lines are due only to that mutation, which is particularly important when the lines are used to test the effect of therapeutic drugs. Again, from Wu:

Investigators can make their own designer iPS cell lines to study particular mutations with genetically identical controls to use in their experiments. We won't have to make new iPS cells from each patient, which is laborious and time consuming. Instead we can create standardized lines to study many different mutations alone and in combination. This has the potential to revolutionize the field of disease modeling and drug discovery.

The two papers describe ongoing research in the Wu lab designed to optimize iPS cells for a variety of applications. The group, including graduate student Arun Sharma, recently published research using human iPS cell-derived cardiomyocytes to investigate the effect of various antiviral drugs againse coxsackievirus, a leading cause of an infection of the middle layer of the heart wall in children and the elderly. The research is the first time that iPS cell-derived heart muscle has been used to investigate the mechanisms behind an acquired viral disease.

Previously: A new era for stem cells in cardiac medicine? A simple, effective way to generate patient-specific heart muscle cells, "Clinical trail in a dish" may make common medicines safer, say Stanford scientists and Lab-made heart cells mimic common cardiac disease in Stanford study

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