The modern world has been overwhelmed by a surge in diseases that seemingly are manageable but may not be curable. The inability to completely cure or prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or conditions such as spinal cord injuries, diabetes, severe burns and bone marrow transplants for leukemia has amplified the need for stem cells, which beam in like a ray of hope. Stem cells have two main characteristics:1. Pluripotency–the unique ability of a stem cell to divide into another stem cell and 2.Differentiation–The ability to differentiate into any kind of specialized cells in the body. Thus, stem cells, the building blocks of human life, have not only attracted the collective attention of stem cell biologists and researchers but also governments and the media, across the world.
Research being conducted by Jubina Balan at the IITB-Monash Research Academy in Mumbai focuses a few steps ahead, on somatic cells that are tuned to result in stem cells by using a viral vector (a tool routinely used by stem cell biologists to transport genetic material into cells). The cells that are produced as a result of this process are called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs). Their similarities in characteristics with embryonic stem cells present exciting new possibilities in the treatment of diseases.
The two conventional sources of stem cells have been adult cells (cells derived from the body tissue of an adult person) and embryonic cells (derived from embryos). Adult stem cells are useful in cellular therapy since the patient’s own body cells are used, circumventing the problem of immune rejection. But the derivation and maintenance of adult stem cells is a herculean task. Embryonic stem cells could have been the answer to the limitations associated with adult stem cells. They, however, are weighed down by ethical controversies, limiting their use. The discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) in 2006 has accelerated the progress in the area of stem cell biology. Their similarity to embryonic stem cells offers many opportunities for basic and clinical research. However, their use in therapy will develop only if their molecular and functional equivalence to embryonic stem cells is proven. The IPSC technology is a simple and efficient way of generating an adequate amount of stem cells, without raising any ethical concerns as their embryonic counterparts do.
With the IPSC technology gaining increasing prominence, a question of paramount importance is whether IPSCs are indeed exact replicas of ESCs as they are claimed it to be. Jubina Balan’s research broadly aims to understand the functional equivalence of IPSCs and ESCs since, if the functional equivalence is not established, the implications are manifold. The research also examines the differentiation mechanism of both ESCs and IPSCs by making use of small molecules that induce differentiation.
The IPSC technology has garnered a lot of attention in the recent times for being efficient, easier and an inexpensive way to generate stem cells. All the controversies and complexities that have plagued embryonic stem cell research are not relevant to IPSC research. Jubina Balan hopes that induced pluripotent stem cells would eventually be used for the treatment of several diseases, testing novel drugs, differentiating into specific cell lineages or unraveling more details during embryonic development. Research in IPSC holds promises on several fronts:
- A patient’s cells could be converted to stem cells modeling the disease which can be used not only for testing new drugs but also for an increased understanding of the molecular mechanism of that specific disease.
- Since IPSCs can be generated from patients own body cells there would be no need for patients to take immunosuppressive drugs to counteract tissue rejection.
- In addition, IPSCs will be beneficial in unraveling the exact mechanism or molecules that guide the stem cells to differentiate into specific other cells used in replacing specific damaged cells or tissues in the body.
Jubina Balan reflects on her work saying “Induced pluripotent stem cells provide hope for the treatment of several chronic diseases in addition to the repair of diseased or damaged cells or tissues in the body. If IPSCs are established that they are exactly like embryonic stem cells in every which way, then this could be the Holy Grail in regenerative medicine, paving the way for ‘personalized medicine’”
Graduate research scholars of IITB-Monash Research Academy like Jubina Balan, study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience. IITB-Monash Research Academy is collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries.
Research scholar: Jubina Balan, IITB-Monash Research Academy
Project title: Generation & characterization of induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) and comparison of IPSCs with embryonic stem cells.
Supervisors: Dr Dulal Panda (IITB) & Dr Paul Verma (Monash)
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The above story was written by Ms. Sheba Sanjay based on inputs from the research student and IITB-Monash Research Academy.