Induced pluripotent stem cell technology is a powerful tool that scientists at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine use to study a wide range of diseases. To understand the usefulness of induced pluripotent stem cells, it helps to know a few basic facts about stem cells and the role they play in research.

There are many types of stem cells. In general, the term stem cell refers to a category of cells that give rise to other cells (like skin, blood, heart, and muscle cells) by replicating and differentiating in response to chemical cues.

Stem cells enable organisms to develop, grow, and replenish tissue lost to injury, disease, and natural attrition. In regenerative medicine, researchers use stem cells to study diseases, to test drugs in labs without involving humans or animals, and, in limited cases, as treatments in patients.

There are several ways scientists can obtain stem cells to use in research. Embryonic stem cells, which are particularly valuable, also come with challenges. First, they must be derived from donated embryonic tissue, limiting their supply. Embryonic stem cells also cannot be matched to individual patients, a barrier to future therapeutic applications. Adult stem cells can be taken from patients, but these cells have already matured beyond a point where they can become many other cell types, minimizing their usefulness for study of other organs and tissues.

What is the history of induced pluripotent stem cells?

Embryonic and adult stem cells were the two primary options until 2007, when scientists at Kyoto University in Japan pioneered a new technology known as induced pluripotent stem cells. Starting in mice, a team led by Shinya Yamanaka used genes associated with the growth of embryonic stem cells to reprogram adult cells in mice. Later that year, the same approach was used successfully with human stem cells, opening up exciting new avenues of research and possible treatments for a wide range of diseases. In a nod to popular Apple products, Yamanaka also gave induced pluripotent stem cells the shorthand name by which they are commonly known today: iPSC or hiPSC for human induced pluripotent stem cells.

Today, induced pluripotent stem cells are derived from adult cells that are abundant in skin, urine, and blood. Induced pluripotent stem cells are engineered in labs by resetting adult cells to a stem cell-like state. This gives regenerative medicine researchers an easily accessible and replenishable source of stem cells they can use to study human development, disease onset, and potential therapies. Although induced pluripotent stem cells are not yet used in clinics, this technology also means patients could one day be treated with their own cells.

What are induced pluripotent stem cells used for?

At the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), induced pluripotent stem cells are used to model a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, heart diseases, kidney disease, muscle disorders, blood diseases, diabetes and other conditions impacting the human body. Induced-pluripotent stem cells are also powering technologies, like organoids and tissue engineering, that are accelerating research in labs across the University of Washington and around the world.