Technologies and trends

Stem cells – The new age of medical research

New, combined methods using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) have the potential to treat illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease or cardiovascular diseases in a more targeted and sustainable way, and could even prevent their development. For many patients cell therapy is therefore a source of hope in medical research.

Revolution in the petri dish: Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC)

Stem cells are the all-rounders of the body. All types of tissue are formed from them, making them particularly valuable. A few years ago, reprogramming of adult cells by Japanese researcher and Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka sparked a revolution in the world of research. Up until that point, the purpose of a cell within the body had been considered unchangeable, because even though the entire genome is contained in every cell, skin or never cells, for example, can no longer access all parts of it.

Today, a biological trick (see infographic) makes it possible to reprogram adult stem cells into the state of pluripotent stem cells. These so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can theoretically be differentiated into any type of cell and, therefore, any tissue type.

Small cell, big effect: How iPSCs help in research

Working with iPSCs and the cells differentiated from them offers a broad range of possibilities to researchers: They can artificially reconstruct entire organs from their various components (cell types), even making it possible to simulate diseases in the organs. iPSCs are used to create organ cells – nerve cells, myocardial or liver cells – that show classical symptoms of disease. Thus, illnesses – from Parkinson’s to cardiovascular diseases and even cancer – can be simulated in the petri dish.

Specific genetic damage can also be created with iPSCs. It is possible to generate models of patients suffering from certain genetic defects and the resulting illnesses. Testing of substances in the diseased cells enables researchers to examine new therapeutic approaches and the effects of potential active substances.

Another possible use: With cardiomyocytes created from induced stem cells, it is possible to gain information at an early stage about possible side effects of active substances that might become dangerous for a patient’s cardiac function.

For all purposes: iPSCs are useful in pharmaceutical research and regenerative medicine

Besides drug research, stem cell-based approaches are also very promising in the field of regenerative medicine. For instance, iPSCs could be differentiated into cells which are defective in a patient (e.g., dopaminergic neurons in the case of Parkinson’s disease). These cells can be transplanted into the patient and help halt the progression of the disease or even bring about a cure. In addition, specific genetic modifications can be used to minimize or completely prevent rejection reactions in the patient.

Just the beginning: Stem cells herald a new era in medical research

But all of these are just mere hints at the overall potential of cell therapy. In the future, even more efficient and personalized treatment options will be available, especially in combination with other revolutionary medical technologies and procedures.

Through the integration of state-of-the-art procedures in cell biology and genome editing, for instance, it is possible to create a whole new generation of cellular therapies.

The prevention of cancer using vaccines is also boosted by cell therapy approaches. The latest methods include injecting iPSCs that are genetically matched with the receiver but are unable to reproduce. This means that the immune system can be trained for a wide range of cancer-specific points of attack – and ultimately be enabled to fight cancer at an early stage.

All of this is an indicator for the potential of cell therapies for a huge variety of diseases and emphasizes that stem cells are an essential driver in the new age of medical research.