Progress in stem cell biology: This could change everything about the practice of medicine

Posted: February 4, 2014 at 1:51 am

Editors note: What follows is a guest post. Michael Zhang is an MD-PhD student studying at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He is one of my go-to experts on matters of cell biology and stem cells. (His bio is below.)

As you may have heard, this week brought striking news in the field of stem cell biology. Researchers from Boston and Japan published two papers in the prestigious journal Nature in which they describe new and easy ways to transform mouse cells back into stem cells. (NPR coverage here.) Make no mistake, this is not mundane science news. This is big.

I follow cell biology because I believe it is the branch of science that will bring the next major advance in modern medicine. Rather than implant a pacemaker, future doctors may inject a solution of sinus node stem cells, and voila, the heart beats normally. Rather than watch a patient with a scarred heart die of heart failure or suffer from medication side effects, future doctors may inject stem cells that replace the non-contracting scar. And the same could happen for kidneys, pancreas, spinal nerves, etc.

When I heard the news, I emailed Michael the link with the following subject line: This is pretty cool, right? He wrote back. What he taught me is worth sharing.

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Michael Zhang MD-PhD candidate Univ of Louisville

By Michael Zhang:

Japanese and American cell biologists have recently reported dramatic new findings that are likely to upend biological dogma.

For much of the past century, the prevailing consensus held that once animal cells move past the earliest embryonic stages, they are irreversibly committed to specialized roles in the adult brain cells, heart cells, lung cells etc. In the past decade, two Nobel-winning biologists each separately demonstrated that committed specialist cells (aka differentiated cells) could be reprogrammed back to a primordial, embryonic state (aka pluripotent stem cell) that could then morph into any new type of specialized cell.

Now, Professor Obokata and her colleagues describe new methods to induce this reprogramming of specialized cells to (pluripotent) stem cells. Whereas previous methods involved draconian procedures the transfer of entire nuclei between cells, or the transfer of multiple genes Obokatas group found that simply squeezing a terminally differentiated cell, or immersing it in an acidic solution, could induce reprogramming to an embryonic stem cell state.

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Progress in stem cell biology: This could change everything about the practice of medicine

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