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Identification of an important mechanism for the production of stem cells

Dr. Jochen Utikal, a dermatologist at Mannheim University Hospital, has made decisive progress in the use of cell replacement therapies for the treatment of degenerative diseases. Dr. Utikal succeeded in deciphering a mechanism that enables the successful creation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). Utikal is a chief physician in the Department of Dermatology, Venerology and Allergology (Mannheim Dermatology Excellence Centre) at Heidelberg University.

A breakthrough in creating pluripotent cells from skin cells and the enhanced expression of transcription factors as a result of genes introduced into the skin cells was only achieved a short while ago. Like embryonic stem cells, these iPS cells have the ability to develop into any type of tissue whatsoever. The researchers hope that these iPS cells will be able to replace the use of embryonic stem cells in clinical research.

The major interest of research into human stem cells is focused on potential cell replacement therapies. The basis for these types of treatments is pluripotent cells that can be differentiated into specialised cells and then proliferated. In the past, this type of research involved the use of embryonic stem cells as only these cells have the natural ability to differentiate into any type of cell and hence any type of tissue.

Since embryonic stem cells are produced from embryos, the use of embryonic stem cells in research is a subject about which there have been many heated ethical discussions, and is strictly regulated in Germany by the German Stem Cell Law. Scientists all over the world are therefore working hard to develop alternative methods for the production of pluripotent cells in order to be able to avoid the use of embryonic stem cells in research in future.

Since iPS cells are obtained without the destruction of embryos, they are free of the ethical constraints that overshadow embryonic stem cells. In addition, iPS cells have another decisive advantage: as they are produced from the patient’s own body cells, all iPS cells contain the patient’s own genetic material (autologous) and will not be rejected when the tissue is implanted into the patient. The possibility of generating patient-specific pluripotent cells therefore has a huge therapeutic potential.

Although it is generally possible to create iPS cells, the number created is not sufficient. Only one in 10,000 cells can be turned into an iPS cell. Dr. Utikal has now succeeded in deciphering a mechanism, involving several genes being switched off to make cells pluripotent. This system gives rise to a significant increase in the iPS cell production rate.

Dr. Utikal will now investigate the possibilities of the therapeutic application of iPS cells. As the mechanism identified by Dr. Utikal also plays a major role in the development of tumours, his scientific research will also focus on tumour research.

Original publication

"Cellular immortalization eliminates a roadblock during the reprogramming of somatic cells into iPS cells."
Utikal J, Polo JM, Stadtfeld M, Maherali N, Kulalert W, Walsh RM, Khalil A, Rheinwald JG, Hochedlinger K.
Nature, in press

The study was published online (Advance Online Publication) at 19.00 on 9th August 2009 at www.nature.com.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/identification-of-an-important-mechanism-for-the-production-of-stem-cells