Virtually identical to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) except for their origin of isolation, the recently created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) (Yu et al., 2007; Takahashi et al., 2007) hold much potential for use in regenerative therapies. iPSCs are cells that were originally from adult tissues, but have been forced to produce proteins that are thought to be essential for the pluripotency of human embryonic stem cells. By making cells express these embryonic stem cell proteins, adult cells can be created that look and act nearly identical to hESCs.
The idea of reprogramming a cell from adult tissue into an embryonic-like, pluripotent cell existed long before the creation of iPSCs. In 1938, Hans Spemann showed that a nucleus from a fertilized salamander egg that had already undergone cell division several times could be implanted into a cell from a newly fertilized salamander egg that is enucleated (has had its nucleus removed) and create an entire adult salamander (Spemann, 1938). Consequently, Spemann’s work suggests that an embryonic nucleus remains totipotent, or is able to develop into any cell type of the adult body, even after several cell divisions. Due to technical difficulties, it was several years before researchers could repeat these experiments using older nuclei to see how long the nucleus retains its pluripotency. In the early 1950s, Robert Briggs and Thomas King repeated Spemann’s experiments using a species of leopard frog, Rana pipiens, first with a nucleus from young embryos (Briggs and King, 1952) then from older embryos (King and Briggs, 1954); both the younger and older implanted nuclei could still be reprogrammed by the enucleated host cell. However, they also observed that the older the donor nucleus was, the more difficult it was to reprogram it to a totipotent state. For years it was unclear whether the nucleus from a fully differentiated, adult cell could be completely reprogrammed, as conflicting results were published by different groups (Briggs and King, 1957; Fishberg et al., 1958; Gurdon and Byrne, 2003).
Although the studies done by Spemann, Briggs, and King used nuclei from embryos, their results are the basis for somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). SCNT is a technique wherein the nucleus from a somatic cell (an adult cell that is not a sperm or egg, i.e. not the gametes) is implanted into an enucleated egg cell which can then be implanted into, and develop in, a surrogate mother, and potentially become an adult organism. The resultant organism is a clone of the animal that donated the nucleus. The first widely-accepted successful use of SCNT came with the creation of the sheep Dolly in 1997, the first cloned animal from an adult cell and the first cloned mammal (Wilmut et al., 1997). Since then, several other animals have been successfully cloned, though many problems still remain and there are low success rates (Wilmut et al., 1997; Wakayama et al., 1998; Solter, 1998; McKinnell and Di Bernardino, 1999; Gurdon and Byrne, 2003).