A commercial product claiming to be the first to make use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) has been launched, albeit not a product that can be directly used on humans. Cellular Dynamics International (CDI), a biotech company based in Madison, Wisconsin, US, has recently announced that it has released human heart cells derived from iPS cells for commercial use. CDI intends its trademarked iCell Cardiomyocytes to be used by pharmaceutical companies to aid in the drug discovery process by improving the predictability of drug compound efficacy and toxicity screens. They also expect them to help in 'weeding out ineffective and potentially toxic compounds early in the pharmaceutical pipeline process before significant time and resources have been invested'.
Much attention has been given to iPS cells since their discovery in 2007 by Junying Yu, who is now a CDI senior research fellow, but at the time was a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison laboratory of James Thomson (chief scientific officer and co-founder of CDI). iPS cells are a particular type of stem cell made directly from adult cells - such as skin cells - and so their creation does not involve embryos in any way. This sidesteps a lot of the controversial ethical issues surrounding the use of stem cells in research and is one of the sources of their appeal. CDI announced in July that it could generate iPS cells from small volumes of human blood, and says that its iCell cardiomyocytes derived from iPS cells 'spontaneously beat in vitro and exhibit the electrophysiological and biochemical properties of normal human heart cells'. This means that they would provide a significant advantage over other models used in pharmaceutical research such as non-human cell models (that may respond differently than human tissue), tumour-derived cell models (which are genetically different than normal cells), and cadaveric cells (which can vary batch to batch, and can exhibit non-normal behaviour).
It should be made clear that although the iCell Cardiomyocytes are human cells it will be many years before such cells will be safe enough to be transplanted into patients to treat conditions such as heart disease. Nevertheless, their use in research and development should save both time and money, meaning that new drugs are discovered and tested in shorter spaces of time and at a lower cost. In addition, CDI says it has a proprietary process to produce industrial quantities of its iCells to the high quality and purity that its pharmaceutical customers demand. This is also good news in and of itself - it is useful for companies in the biotech sector to have experience in 'industrialising' their developing technologies, as this is a crucial step that must be mastered before new technologies can experience widespread use and benefit the population at large.