iPS heart cells beating in a dish: Courtesy Wired magazine
Each new breakthrough in stem cell science is cause for celebration. But pretty quickly after the champagne corks have flown researchers start asking follow-up questions such as “how can we do this faster, more efficiently, more effectively?”
For some years now researchers have been able to take stem cells and turn them into heart muscle cells that actually beat in time with each other. Now CIRM-funded researchers at the Gladstone Institutes have come up with a way to create those same kinds of cells in a more efficient and, importantly, more complete way.
Sheng Ding, Ph.D., and his colleagues describe their methods and findings in the latest issue of Cell Reports.
With previous methods scientists had to insert several genetic factors to change or reprogram a skin cell into a beating heart cell. That was complicated, time consuming and potentially dangerous since the insertions could lead to tumor growth. But Dr. Ding and his team took another approach. They took skin cells from adult mice and used those to look for chemical elements, compounds called “small molecules”, that could do the same job.
After much detective work they whittled down the list of possible candidates to a combination of four molecules, which they called SPCF, and showed this could turn ordinary skin cells into beating heart cells. But they weren’t finished yet because the cells didn’t beat quite the same as mature adult heart cells would. So they added one more ingredient, a genetic factor called Oct4, and that did the trick.
In a news release about the research Dr. Ding says:
“Once we added Oct4 to the mix we observed clusters of contracting cells after a period of just 20 days. Remarkably, additional analysis revealed that these cells showed the same patterns of gene activation and electric signaling patterns normally seen in the ventricles of the heart.”This discovery gives researchers another option, a pharmaceutical-based one rather than a genetic-based one, as they try to find the best ways to regrow heart muscle damaged by disease or a heart attack.
In the search for new treatments for deadly diseases, it’s always good to have as many options as possible, because the more shots on goal you take the more likely you are to score.