Page URL:

Reprogramming phenomenon lauded 'Best of 2008'

5 January 2009
Appeared in BioNews 489

As 2008 drew to a close, Science magazine announced its annual top ten breakthroughs of the year, after considering novel research that 'paves the way for future discoveries'. Work in the field of cellular reprogramming was awarded pole position, ahead of a real-time video of a developing zebrafish embryo, and the direct observation of nearby planets.

Robert Coontz, Science's deputy news editor, says: 'Cellular reprogramming opened a new field of biology almost overnight and holds out hope of life-saving medical advances'.

In 2006, Professor Shinya Yamanaka and team of Kyoto University, Japan, succeeded in converting mouse skin cells into - functionally speaking - stem cells. Appearing in the journal Cell, the paper described the introduction of just four 'master regulator' genes into the adult cells. The resultant cells are dubbed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These could be coaxed into becoming any one of hundreds of distinct cell types, yet circumvented the need for extracting stem cells from an early-stage embryo to achieve the same. This is potentially highly beneficial, as the latter process is strongly dissuaded by many on political and ethical grounds. A year on, this intriguing feat was recapitulated in human skin cells; a success recognised as first runner-up in last year's top-ten. In September 2008, Professor Yamanaka's method was awarded patent status in Japan.

Since then, Professor Yamanaka and, subsequently, Professor George Daley of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, US, have reported creating such iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells from patients with specific genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome and Huntington's disease. These cells can be converted into the specific cell type affected by the original donor's disease, like muscle cells in patients with a muscular dystrophy. Theoretically, any hereditary disease is amenable to such investigation.

The benefits are two-fold. Such cells could be used in drug screens and toxicology studies. They might also represent the beginning of patient-specific therapies, where genetic defects are corrected in the laboratory before the cells are re-introduced into the affected patient. There would be no organ rejection as the cells are not foreign.

Also at Harvard in 2008, a third group, led by Professor Douglas Melton, reported skipping the embryonic cell stage altogether, by converting one adult cell type to another. Published in the journal Nature, this finding went against a widely believed paradigm that suggests a cell cannot 'backtrack', let alone change identity, once it has reached its final 'personality'. Clearly, such work has culminated in a deeper appreciation of the subtleties of cellular reprogramming.

'All of us who are working with reprogramming owe a debt to Shinya Yamanaka, whose real paradigm-shifting work occurred in 2006', said Professor Daley, speaking to Science magazine after the announcement of their winner. 'For many years, we've been seeking ways to establish the cell culture models for human disease. And we've finally achieved that'.

Breakthrough of the Year 2008
Science |  19 December 2008
Science's Breakthrough Of The Year: Cellular Reprogramming
ScienceDaily |  22 December 2008
Stem cell technique named scientific breakthrough of the year
The Daily Telegraph |  19 December 2008
Year that could be turning point on disease
The Times |  19 December 2008
22 April 2013 - by Dr Anna Cauldwell 
Skin cells have been directly converted into the types of cells destroyed in patients with myelin disorders like multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy in a pair of studies on mice...
7 December 2009 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Researchers at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), lead by Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, have identified genetic pathways that can speed up the process of reprogramming mature adult cells into stem cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells)....
2 March 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Researchers in the UK and Canada have successfully created induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells suitable for potential future use in humans. iPS cells are adult cells (in this case skin cells) that have been reprogrammed into a pluripotent embryonic-like state, able to divide into any cell in...
2 February 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
A special class of adult stem cells, known as human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, has for the first time been reprogrammed into cells that develop into human eggs and sperm. The research, carried out by members of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)'s Broad...
22 September 2008 - by Ben Jones 
The Japanese Patent Office has granted the first patent for induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) to Kyoto University, where researcher Shinya Yamanaka produced both the first non-human iPS cells in 2006 and, using the same process, the first human iPS cells in 2007.The Japanese patent...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.