By Carl Wonders | January 31, 2014
You may have heard the news this week about exciting new developments in the field of stem cell research, published in the January 30 issue of Nature. A Japanese scientist, Dr. Haruko Obokata, and her colleagues demonstrated a new way to reprogram specialized stem cells from a newborn mouse to a “pluripotent” state; which is to say, the cells gained the ability to turn into any sort of cell in the body, much the same way embryonic stem cells can.
Pluripotent cells have attracted considerable attention from stem cell researchers around the world. In fact, human pluripotent cells are a valuable tool for understanding how our bodies work. They provide opportunities to study many different diseases and conditions-- such as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury-- and to develop new methods for diagnosis and therapy.
Dr. Obokata’s primary finding is that she can cause a specialized cell from a newborn mouse to revert back to a pluripotent state. But as striking as this is, she is not the first to create a pluripotent stem cell from a specialized cell. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka discovered how to generate “induced pluripotent stem cells,” or iPS cells, through genetic manipulation of fully mature, specialized cells. This discovery was groundbreaking and challenged the way we think about how our tissues form and how we can influence this process both inside and outside of the body. In recognition of this work, Dr Yamanaka was co-recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
What makes Dr. Obokata’s newly discovered cells, called “Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency,” or STAP cells, so remarkable is that they are created, not by genetic manipulation, but through exposure to a more acidic environment. Incredibly, this suggests that cells possess the ability to be reprogrammed without any outside changes to their genetic code. While it is exciting, the full potential of this research will be unknown until the results can be duplicated in other labs and replicated with older tissues and within other species, including humans.
There is still much to be learned about stem cells, cellular reprogramming and pluripotency. The stem cell research community hopes that as more is understood about STAP cells, they will join embryonic stem and iPS cells as another reprogramming tool for use in their collective quest to understand and treat human disease.