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The Acid Test: Turning Regular Cells Into Stem Cells

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Green blobs on a grey background

Caption: A new type of stem cells, called STAPs.
Credit:
Haruko Obokata, RIKEN Ctr. for Dev. Biol., Kobe, Japan

Updated July 2, 2014: Since these two papers were published in the journal Nature, more than a dozen research teams have been unable to replicate the STAP findings. On April 1, RIKEN found the main author Haruko Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct. On July 2, Nature accepted requests from all co-authors to retract the papers and published an editorial discussing the retractions.

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Taking a 30-minute soak in a bath of acid might not sound like a good thing. But it happens to be the latest—and the most shockingly simple—strategy for creating stem cells.

The powerful appeal of stem cells for science and medicine lies in the fact that they are both self-renewing and pluripotent, which means they can develop into almost any type of cell in the body. Stem cell technology offers an essentially limitless supply of specialized cells to researchers for exploring the fundamentals of biology, screening for new drugs, and developing new ways to regenerate damaged tissue and repair diseased organs.


Why We’re So Excited About Stem Cells

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Certainly – as you can see here – stem cells are spectacularly beautiful. But they also hold spectacular promise for medicine.  That’s why I immediately expressed my enthusiasm for Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that effectively enables NIH to continue conducting and funding responsible, scientifically worthy stem cell research.

There are many kinds of stem cells. This is a picture of induced pluripotent stem cells – or, iPS cells. Investigators have recently begun using iPS cells to model several neurological diseases – including Parkinson’s. The cells here have been treated with growth factors that coax them into becoming the dopamine producing (dopaminergic) neurons lost in Parkinson’s. The colorized markers indicate the presence of three proteins found within dopaminergic neurons: (1) the enzyme needed to produce dopamine (tyrosine hydroxylase, in blue), (2) a structural protein specific to neurons (Type III beta-tubulin, in green), and (3) a gene regulatory protein needed in dopaminergic neurons (FOXA2, in red). The color-mixing in some cells indicates that all three proteins are present – confirming that these cells are on their way to becoming dopaminergic neurons.

Today’s image is more than just a pretty picture. It’s a window into the ways that disease affects the body – and possibly the ways we might counter those affects. The NIH/NINDS web site has more information about how iPS cells are being used to study Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.