ICRF Grant On Stem-Cell Research & Chauncey Crandall, M.D.
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have overcome a major roadblock to the use of human stem cells for medical purposes. Although stem cells have great potential to effectively treat numerous diseases and conditions, stem-cell research has been a highly charged political topic with questions raised about the morality of using cells from embryos, as well as the ethical implications of cloning and genetic engineering. Most of the controversy has centered on use of embryonic stem cells derived from fertilized embryos that are subsequently destroyed in the research process.
Dr. Chauncey Crandall and others are proponents of stem-cell research.
Hopes were raised in 2006 after researchers at Kyoto University in Japan discovered a way to “reprogram” cells taken from the skin of adults to behave like embryonic stem cells. But since then progress has been frustratingly slow. Creating the embryonic-like cells, called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (or iPSCs), is a difficult process in which four genes are inserted into their DNA. It can take up to four weeks, the timing is not coordinated among the cells, and less than one percent of the treated cells actually end up becoming stem cells. But a team of investigators at the Weizmann Institute, led by Jacob (Yaqub) Hanna, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Molecular Genetics, and supported by a grant from the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), has discovered a way to synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from one percent to 100 percent. The dramatic findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed international science journal Nature.
ICRF is a nationwide charitable organization, founded in 1975 by a group of American and Canadian researchers, oncologists, and lay people, determined to harness Israel’s educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer. ICRF is the largest U.S.-based charity solely devoted to supporting cancer research in Israel and receives its total income from private donations. Hanna and his colleagues showed that removing a protein called Mbd3 from the adult cells can shorten the process from four weeks to eight days. Because the cells all underwent reprogramming at the same rate, scientists will now be able, for the first time, to follow it step-by-step and reveal its mechanisms of operation. Thus, researchers investigating reprogramming can gain a deeper understanding of how embryonic stem cells are produced in nature. “After all,” says Hanna, “nature still makes them best, in the most efficient manner.”
Stem cells are cells that have the ability to develop into different types of cells in the body. When a stem cell divides, each new cell can either remain the same type or become another type of cell with a different function, such as a brain cell, red blood cell or muscle cell. Thus, they have the enormous potential to treat and cure many medical problems, including spinal cord injury, diabetes, heart disease, blood disorders and Parkinson’s disease, and even to grow organs for transplantation. “Developing safer embryonic stem cells and iPSCs that can be used for transplantation in humans undergoing aggressive chemotherapy or surgeries is likely to be beneficial for many patients suffering from cancer and other diseases,” notes Hanna.
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