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New way to assess stem cells developed


A research team at University College London (UCL) has developed a way to assess the viability of ‘manufactured’ stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The discovery will offer a way to fast-track screening methods used in stem cell research.

iPSCs stem from cells, usually taken from skin or blood, that have been genetically reprogrammed to revert to an embryonic-like state, enabling them to differentiate into any type of cell in the body.

iPSC technology is a very significant development in the study of human diseases. It has the potential for developing transformative cell replacement therapies, the creation of hepatic cells to treat liver disease and stem cells to treat leukaemia and other blood cancers, for example.

A perfect match is necessary for stem cell treatment to ensure the body does not reject donated cells, meaning a lifetime of taking anti-rejection drugs. The only pain-free and non-invasive way of harvesting stem cells to ensure a perfect match in through naturally shed teeth. The best stem cells are those harvested from baby teeth as they have not deteriorated either through ageing or pollution.

The ability of iPSCs to differentiate into other cell types makes them invaluable for research, but not all iPSCs have the same ability, with some cell lines being defective. However, according to UCL Cancer Institute Research Associate Dr Lee Stirling, who led the research team, the traditional methods of assessing the quality of cell lines is expensive and lengthy.

The research team looked for a particular type of DNA methylation – a physical modification of the genetic material of a cell that alters its behaviour – known as non-CG methylation that only occurs in stem cells to see if they could find a link between that and the differentiation of iPSCs.

It found that a reduction in non-CG-methylation was associated with an impaired capacity for differentiation into endodermal lineages – the lineage for organs like the liver, pancreas and thyroid gland.

The research team are hopeful their discovery can used in the short term to analyse cell lines for research purposes more efficiently, and as a basis for discovering the developmental processes associated with methylation patterns in iPSCs.

Dr Stirling said “In time, I’m confident that understanding these principles will impact our understanding of cancer cell behaviour and, eventually, form a solid base for regenerative medicine strategies.”