Study finds new reprogramming technique for stem cells

Colonies grow on a textured surface. A study found physical cues can cause cells to revert to stem cells.
Song Li/Courtesy
Colonies grow on a textured surface. A study found physical cues can cause cells to revert to stem cells.

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Physical cues may be all cells need to revert to a state where they can become other types of cells the body requires, according to a new study published online by UC Berkeley researchers Sunday.

The study, released in the journal Nature Materials, discusses research into using physical signals, such as the texture of a surface on which a cell culture is grown, to encourage cell reprogramming back to an embryonic-like state from which they can differentiate into many types of cells. The study found that physical cues may be able to replace commonly used chemical cues, which are more impractical and inefficient.

“Instead of having to destroy embryos, we can essentially reprogram other cells back to a similar state,” said Timothy Downing, a lead author of the study who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

The researchers grew fibroblast cells — cells that compose the framework of animal tissues and play an important role in healing wounds — on grooved surfaces to determine whether external physical environments could function as factors in inducing cell reprogramming. After two weeks, the number of cells that had reverted back to an embryonic-like state was four times that of cells cultured on a flat surface, indicating that physical factors do, in fact, have an effect on cell development.

Using a physical substrate instead of chemicals in the process removes the potential of an external substance’s influence remaining after the reprogramming process is complete, said Kevin Whittlesey, science officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who was not involved with the study.

When a physical factor is taken away, it no longer has the ability to affect cell processes, whereas residual chemicals can remain and cause unwanted changes to the cell, he said.

“Through just changing the shape, it’s less invasive and causes fewer long-term effects on the cell,” Downing said.

The study follows years of research into induced pluripotent stem cells, matured cells that researchers nudge back to an embryonic-like state so that the cells can redifferentiate and respecialize. The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for breakthrough research into such cells.

For those opposed to research conducted using embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent cells are a welcome alternative.

“There are ways to provide the cures that all of us want without trampling on our most bioethical principles,” said David Stevens, CEO of Christian Medical and Dental Associations, associations of medical professionals who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

However, induced pluripotent cells may never fully replace the function of embryonic stem cells because they retain a genetic footprint that cannot be undone by reprogramming, Whittlesey said.

“We still need to continue to pursue all kinds of avenues,” Whittlesey said. “One (kind of stem cell) may not be able to replace the other.”

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].