The ultimate goal of studying stem cells is to be able to create any type of mature cell on demand. Sheng Ding led a team of researchers from The Scripps Research Institute and from the University of California, San Diego in advancing that goal. Their new technique takes less than a quarter the time and may be much safer.
Although it is possible to convert adult skin cells into other types of mature tissue, the process can take up to eight weeks, and that’s if one of your thousands of attempts is successful. That’s because the standard procedure requires first transforming the skin cell into a pluripotent stem (IPS) cell by inserting a set of four genes, and then from there into the desired cell type. Each of these steps takes weeks, and fails in most cases.
Ding’s team decided to try speeding up the process. They inserted the genes required to turn the skin cells into IPS cells, but rather than let that transformation continue to completion, it was interrupted after a few days (by inactivating the inserted genes). The scientists then gave the skin cells a signal to become heart cells. In just 11 days, they found beating heart cells in their Petri dishes.Ding hopes to continue to streamline his protocol. In particular, he’d like to eliminate the need for the IPS genes altogether, since they’ve been linked to cancer. Going directly to the desired tissue type without going through an IPS step would be both faster and safer.