A goal of regenerative medicine has been to be able to take any cell from a person’s body and turn it in to any other cell type that may be desired (such as insulin-producing beta-cells for treating diabetes, or creating neurons to treat a neurodegenerative disease). This would eliminate several donor-compatibility problems, and potentially eliminate the need for a donor (who isn’t the patient) altogether. In 2007, human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were created and this goal seemed a bit closer (Yu et al., 2007; Takahashi et al., 2007). iPSCs are cells that can be take from adult tissue and “reprogrammed” into embryonic stem cell (ESC)-like cells. Because iPSCs are pluripotent, these cells can then differentiate into (or become) any cell type (for more information, see the All Things Stem Cell article on “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: A New Stem Cell Line with a Long History”).
But is it possible to get rid of the iPSC-middle man? Is it possible to take any cell in the adult body and directly reprogram it, skipping the iPSC state, into the final desired cell type? There have been several studies over the last few decades that show this is quite possible, though it still has a ways to go before it can be regularly used in the clinic.
Reprogramming of cells to a different cell type is usually done by either somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) or by using transcription factors. This post will focus on work done with transcription factors (for more information on using SCNT, see the “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells…” post). Transcription factors are expressed (or made) at different levels in different cell types, and control what genes are expressed in every cell, making sure, for example, that a liver cell remains a liver cell and does not become a neuron. A famous example of how transcription factor expression can be used to alter a cell’s identity is the creation of iPSCs, where adult cells were forced to express transcription factors normally expressed in ESCs, which made the adult cells express genes specific to ESCs, and consequently become nearly identical to ESCs.
There are many degrees of direct reprogramming that have been reported over the last few decades. Several progenitor cells, cells that appear to be committed to their fate but not yet fully differentiated, have been shown to be capable of dedifferentiating into a different cell type; this process is called transdetermination. However, in a few cases it has been shown that a fully differentiated cell can actually become a different cell type; this process is called transdifferentiation (Graf and Enver, 2009). Over the last few decades, much progress has been made in direct reprogramming with muscle, blood, the pancreas, and neurons.
In the 1980s, the first reprogramming experiments using transcription factors took place. In 1987, a group reported using MyoD to make fibroblasts become muscle cells (Davis et al., 1987). Fibroblasts are cells important for wound healing (they secrete essential extracellular matrix proteins) and are common in connective tissues. The specific fibroblasts used were embryonic mouse fibroblasts. Because they were embryonic, this process is called transdetermination; the embryonic fibroblasts could probably differentiate more easily than adult fibroblasts (Graf and Enver, 2009). To convert the fibroblasts into muscle cells, the researchers transfected the fibroblasts with the cDNA of MyoD, forcing the cells to express MyoD (Davis et al., 1987). MyoD is normally only expressed in skeletal muscle, and it was later found to be a transcription factor involved in the differentiation of muscle cells and also a very early marker of muscle cell fate commitment.
Because of its success with the fibroblasts, MyoD was subsequently used in many other reprogramming studies to see what other cells it could make into muscle. It was found that while MyoD could indeed convert many different cell types into muscle, including fibroblasts in the dermal layer of skin, immature chondrocytes (cells in cartilage), smooth muscle, and retinal cells (Choi et al., 1990), MyoD could not turn any cell type into muscle; it was found incapable of making muscle out of hepatocytes (cells in the liver) (Schäfer et al., 1990).
In the 1990s, another key direct reprogramming factor was discovered, specifically involved in hematopoiesis. Hematopoiesis is the process by which the different types of blood cells are generated in the body (the term literally means “to make blood”). (For information on hematopoietic stem cells, see the All Things Stem Cell article “Hematopoietic Stem Cells: A Long History in Brief”). The central hematopoiesis-regulating factor discovered was the transcription factor GATA-1.
In 1995, a group reported that when GATA-1 was added to or removed from avian monocyte precursors, it could turn them into erythrocytes, megakaryocytes, and eosinophils (Kulessa et al., 1995). To understand the significance of these findings an inspection of hematopoiesis is required (see Figure). During hematopoiesis, hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) (also called hemocytoblasts) give rise to all the different types of blood cells. Specifically, HSCs can first differentiate into either a common myeloid progenitor cell or a common lymphoid progenitor cell; either progenitor then further differentiates into specific blood cell types.