A Foray into Science: Importance of iPS Cells

The discovery of induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells over a decade ago was a hallmark for regenerative medicine. *To learn more about stem cells, read Alex’s Stem Cells: A Primer*. With the use of iPS cells there is seemingly no ceiling on the potential of personalized medicine. And while we wait for these clinical trials to advance to treatments, iPS cells have made an impact in a different way.

Research labs have used iPS cells to model and research human diseases and screening drugs. This is especially true with the research of human development and neurological diseases.

Labs have successfully grown mini brains from skin cells; studying the development of the human brain and what leads to neurological diseases like autism and schizophrenia. Urine cells, collected from individuals with Down syndrome, are turned into iPS cells to study the neurological disorder. This non-invasive collection procedure allows for a greater number of samples to study from vulnerable populations, such as children and individuals with intellectual disability.

Scientists have also created banks of “organoids,” mini stomachs, kidneys, livers and more to study human development and how diseases are created.

  • The mini guts have proved to be valuable in studying the effectiveness of drugs in people with cystic fibrosis. The creation of gut tissue that is almost a perfect copy has been successfully grafted into mice. This brings us closer to growing gut tissue transplants for individuals with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and chronic constipation. 
  •  The mini kidneys could be used to test drug candidates for toxicity as the kidney plays a key part in drug metabolism and excretion.
  • There have been many lives lost to liver failure due to the lack of donor organs available. Adult liver cells are difficult to grow but Takanori Takebe created “liver buds”, structures that resemble the liver of a six-week-old human embryo. These buds are far from an entire liver but Takebe hopes to infuse many thousands of buds into a failing liver in hopes of rescuing enough of its functions to make a transplant avoidable.

These “organoids” are better suited for developmental modeling and screening medicine than regular cells due to their 3D structure. The 3D structure and organization of tissues are important in understanding how they develop, how they become diseased, and most importantly, how they react to new treatments.

We may not be able to grow a whole replacement organ today but iPS cells are proving to be useful in other ways to combat diseases and neurological diseases.