Scientists convert skin cells to beating heart cells

Jan 31, 2011

Scripps Research Institute scientists have converted adult skin cells directly into beating heart cells efficiently without having to first go through the laborious process of generating embryonic-like stem cells. The powerful general technology platform could lead to new treatments for a range of diseases and injuries involving cell loss or damage, such as heart disease, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's disease.

The work was published January 30, 2011, in an advance, online issue of .

"This work represents a new paradigm in stem cell reprogramming," said Scripps Research Associate Professor Sheng Ding, Ph.D., who led the study. "We hope it helps overcome major safety and other technical hurdles currently associated with some types of stem cell therapies."

Making Stem Cells

As the human body develops, embryonic-like stem cells multiply and transform themselves into more mature cell types through a process known as differentiation, producing all of the body's different cell types and tissues. Past the , however, the human body has limited capacity to generate new cells to replace ones that have been lost or damaged.

Thus, scientists have been trying to develop ways to "reprogram" adult human cells back to a more embryonic-like, or pluripotent, state, from which they are able to divide and then change into any of the body's cell types. Using these techniques, scientists aim to someday be able to take a patient's own cells, say , change them into heart or brain cells, and then insert them back into the patient to fix damaged tissues. In 2006, Japanese scientists reported that they could reprogram mouse skin cells to become pluripotent simply by inserting a set of four genes into the cells.

Although the technology to generate these cells, dubbed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, represents a major advance, there are some hurdles to overcome before it can be adapted to therapies.

"It takes a long time to generate iPS cells and then differentiate them into tissue-specific functional cell types," said Ding, "and it's a tedious process. Also, what you generate is not ideal."

Specifically, it takes some two to four weeks for scientists to create iPS cells from skin cells and the process is far from efficient, with only one cell out of thousands making the complete transformation. Furthermore, once scientists obtain iPS cells, they then have to go through the tricky procedure of inducing the iPS cells to differentiate into desired types of cells, which takes an additional two to four weeks.

In addition, the process of generating mature cells from iPS cells is not foolproof. When, for example, scientists induce iPS cells to become heart cells, the resulting cells are a mix of heart cells and some lingering iPS cells. Scientists are concerned that giving these new heart cells (along with the remaining pluripotent cells) to patients might be dangerous. When pluripotent cells are injected in mice, they cause cancer-like growths.

Because of these concerns, Ding and colleagues decided to try to tweak the process by completely bypassing the iPS stage and going directly from one type of mature cell (a skin cell) to another (a heart cell).

Bypassing the Stem Cell Stage

The team introduced the same four genes initially used to make iPS cells into adult skin fibroblast cells, but instead of letting the genes be continuously active in cells for several weeks, they switched off their activities just after a few days, long before the cells had turned into iPS cells. Once the four genes were switched off, the scientists gave a signal to the cells to make them turn into heart cells.

"In 11 days, we went from skin cells to beating heart cells in a dish," said Ding. "It was phenomenal to see."

Ding points out the protocol is fundamentally different from what has been done by other scientists in the past and notes that giving the cells a different kind of signal could turn them into or pancreatic cells.

"It is like launching a rocket," he said. "Until now, people thought you needed to first land the rocket on the moon and then from there you could go to other planets. But here we show that just after the launch you can redirect the rocket to another planet without having to first go to the moon. This is a totally new paradigm."

In addition to better understanding the basic biology of , the next step will be to modify this technique further to remove the need for inserting the four genes, which have been linked to the development of cancer. As a result, many scientists, including Ding, have been working on new techniques to develop iPS cells without use of these genes. That has proven difficult. But with the new protocol, which bypasses the iPS cell stage, the genes are needed for a much shorter time.

"Action for such a short period of time is a lot easier to replace," Ding noted.

Explore further: Scientists throw light on the mechanism of plants' ticking clock

Related Stories

Major advance in cell reprogramming technology

Apr 23, 2009

In a paper publishing online April 23rd in Cell Stem Cell, a Cell Press journal, Dr. Sheng Ding and colleagues from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, report an important step forward in the race to mak ...

Recommended for you

Fighting bacteria—with viruses

Jul 24, 2014

Research published today in PLOS Pathogens reveals how viruses called bacteriophages destroy the bacterium Clostridium difficile (C. diff), which is becoming a serious problem in hospitals and healthcare institutes, due to its re ...

Atomic structure of key muscle component revealed

Jul 24, 2014

Actin is the most abundant protein in the body, and when you look more closely at its fundamental role in life, it's easy to see why. It is the basis of most movement in the body, and all cells and components ...

Brand new technology detects probiotic organisms in food

Jul 23, 2014

In the food industr, ity is very important to ensure the quality and safety of products consumed by the population to improve their properties and reduce foodborne illness. Therefore, a team of Mexican researchers ...

Protein evolution follows a modular principle

Jul 23, 2014

Proteins impart shape and stability to cells, drive metabolic processes and transmit signals. To perform these manifold tasks, they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. Scientists at the Max Planck ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hard2grep
not rated yet Jan 31, 2011
Now that is interesting...
neiorah
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2011
Agreed. This may mean that we do not have to rely on harvested stem cells to do everything. No more babies will be used for this anymore.
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2011
No more babies will be used for this anymore

Babies have not been used for this, ever.