An improvement on current methods of creating pluripotent stem cells has been in the news the past few days. It involves stressing cells with simple mechanisms, and is straightforward enough that I hear numerous laboratories and individual researchers have started in on trying it out immediately, as well as revisiting other variants of stressing cells to see what the outcome might be. The methodology is something that diybio enthusiasts could carry out as a weekend project with minimal cost and equipment, which is a great improvement over prior standard methods involving delivery of genes or similar operations.
As with all such potential infrastructure improvements, one pillar of importance is the reduction in cost and difficulty of research. When someone figures out a much cheaper way of achieving any particular goal all further work that builds on that goal moves more rapidly: existing groups can do more, and new groups that previously couldn't afford to join in now start work. Cell pluripotency is near the base of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering: ways to better achieve it accelerate the whole field.
As you can see there are also other ramifications, however, such as for persistent reports of pluripotent stem cells isolated from adult tissues - VSELs and others - and the debate over difficulties in replicating that research.
In 2006, Japanese researchers reported a technique for creating cells that have the embryonic ability to turn into almost any cell type in the mammalian body - the now-famous induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. In papers published this week, another Japanese team says that it has come up with a surprisingly simple method - exposure to stress, including a low pH - that can make cells that are even more malleable than iPS cells, and do it faster and more efficiently.
"It's amazing. I would have never thought external stress could have this effect," says Yoshiki Sasai. It took Haruko Obokata, a young stem-cell biologist at the same centre, five years to develop the method and persuade Sasai and others that it works. "Everyone said it was an artefact - there were some really hard days."
The results could fuel a long-running debate. For years, various groups of scientists have reported finding pluripotent cells in the mammalian body. But others have had difficulty reproducing such findings. Obokata started the current project by looking at cells thought to be pluripotent cells isolated from the body. But her results suggested a different explanation: that pluripotent cells are created when the body's cells endure physical stress.
Obokata has already reprogrammed a dozen cell types, including those from the brain, skin, lung and liver, hinting that the method will work with most, if not all, cell types. On average, she says, 25% of the cells survive the stress and 30% of those convert to pluripotent cells - already a higher proportion than the roughly 1% conversion rate of iPS cells.