Cellular Reprogramming Research Won Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize
Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012 for a remarkable longevity breakthrough, his discovery of Yamanaka Factors. .
He discovered a way to turn regular adult cells into Pluripotent Stem Cells.
When stem cells divide, they specialise – replenishing the myriad cell types which are essential for a healthily functioning body.
The four molecules used to do this are known as ‘Yamanaka Factors’. These special molecules are protein transcription factors, they control how our DNA is translated into the proteins our cells need to perform their specialist functions and to communicate.
This page introduces Yamanaka’s remarkable research, before listing the ways in which cellular reprogramming is being used in medicine and biotechnology today. It is a broad introduction. However, anyone interested in diving deeper will find links to quality sources explaining the science.
I find this type of research highly motivating. While we work together on health span habits, scientists are curing major diseases and reversing the effects of age.
What are Stem Cells and Why are they Important?
Every cell in your body has identical DNA.
Think about that for a second.
What makes a liver cell different from a neurone or blood cell is which genes are turned on and off.
Once a cell has a specialist role, division won’t change it.
Stem cells are different. These are precursors to our specialist cells. There are three categories of stem cell, then specialist types within categories.
- Embryonic Stem Cells
- Multipotent (Adult) Stem Cells
- Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
Adult stem cells have specialist types which only replace blood cells or skin cells – for example.
As we age, the number of stem cells diminishes. This inability to actively replace specialist cell populations leads to the diseases of old age.
What Shinya Yamanaka did was return regular (specialist) cells into pluripotent stem cells.
Breakthrough Work: How Yamanaka Reversed the Age of Cells
Before Yamanaka’s discoveries, the only way to get pluripotent stem cells was directly from an embryo.
This was a major ethical headache. However great the promise of stem cell treatments, destroying embryos is difficult to justify. But what if regular cells could be returned to an earlier state? After all, the DNA of stem cells and specialist cells is identical.
Yamanaka and his team at the Kyoto University in Japan worked on this challenge. They took 16 promising molecules and tested them in-vitro on mouse cells. Over time, these factors were whittled down to four.
Their breakthrough was that it was not only possible, but relatively easy to take an older, specialized mouse cell, and reverse its age all the way back to being a pluripotent stem cell.
Here are the four Yamanaka Factors:
You will often see them abbreviated at OSKM.
Following their success with mice, human cells were successfully turned into pluripotent stem cells using the Yamanaka Factors.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Can Grow Out of Control
Reprogramming cells in mice and human cells in vitro is a long way from clinical use.
Coupled with the clinical obstacles below, it means we must consider IPS cells a work in progress.
A major issue is cancer – or rather then potential for the IPS cells to grow out of control. Significant issues with the factor c-Myc were discovered, including the possibility of a Teratoma growths. These cancerous growths contain multiple types of tissue, including hair, teeth, and skin.
Another issue with reprogramming stem cells is that the process is slow. It typically takes two weeks or more. Since Yamanaka’s breakthrough, additional factors are used to improve IPSc production.
Of course, once you have your stem cell population, you need to ensure those cells become the right specialist cell. This is the cutting edge of both medical and longevity research.
Yamanaka Factors: Current Medical Stem Cell Research
Stem cell treatments are currently used for bone marrow transplants, blood stem cell replacement and tissue regeneration. Burn victims are treated with sheets of grown skin cells – which avoids rejection complications while they heal.
Eye conditions all the way up to blindness are also treated with stem cells in experimental treatments.
Using ISP cells for these treatments requires more research due to the risks of them replicating into specialist cells which are not the intended ones.
Clinical trials are underway for induced pluripotent stem cell treatments. Even though research in its early stages, there are multiple conditions which could benefit:
- Macular (eye tissue) degeneration
- Parkinson’s disease
- Spinal cord injury
- Heart cell function (Myocardial infarction)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Tendon and Cartilage Injury
- Huntingdon’s Disease
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells and Longevity
Stem cells have already returned mice to more youthful states. Epigenic rejuvenation and reversing DNA methylation have also been demonstrated.
That said, we are years from safe uses of stem cells for age reversal.
I find this type of research highly motivating. While we work together on health span habits, scientists are curing major diseases and reversing the effects of age. Breakthroughs are already occurring.
I’m making sure that I stay healthy long enough to see the day when this happens.
Links to dive into the science:
- Shinya Yamanaka Bio at the Nobel Prize Institute
- Open Access Paper on iSPCs at BioMed Central, with links to specific research papers
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