Posted on 28 July 2015
Science has really come leaps and bounds in recent years, but two fields have surged ahead, buoyed by recent successes and breakthroughs in understanding. Progress in both genetics and epigenetics has lead to safer gene therapy variants that don’t slot DNA in the wrong places. Stem cells have become personalised without need for embryonic variants, and understanding around how to reprogram them and control both their proliferation and specialisation is developing quickly. It’s hard to recognise revolutionary practices when they come about gradually, but we may well be living in a groundbreaking era. If these practices are able to be translated into the clinic, this century could overcome some medical challenges long deemed unassailable.
Gene therapy and stem cells aren’t especially new, but older practices and understanding was cruder because it was exactly that – new. Things turned out to be more complicated than first expected, but we’re getting there now. CRISPR wasn’t the first gene editing technique, but it’s been able to streamline the affair and offer a cheaper, effective way of editing sequences; quickening advancement in the field. Stem cell science is blossoming too, enabling greater cell activity control, patient specific induced pluripotent stem cells and even potential ‘renewal’ of tissue through reprogramming techniques – helping to wipe negative epigenetic changes too. As we gain command of both genetic and epigenetic alteration, the potential to regenerate the body could be phenomenal.
Science is a world based on evidence so everything deserves caution and care, but what can we actually do right now? We’re always talking about the future, but we’ve come a long way already and a push to incorporate already existing technology could speed things up and help more people. These developments may seem a bit ‘sci-fi’ to the casual observer without a passion for science, so here’s a summary and timeline of what’s gone on already:
As the timeline progresses you can see events are happening at a faster rate as the technology begins to mature.
Embryonic stem cells were initially seen as a semi-holy grail type solution, but after ethical debates the field was left severely restricted. The discovery that ordinary cells from an adult could be programmed into stem cells themselves has completely changed all of that. Our expanding knowledge of reprogramming opens up research possibilities considerably. Finding new stem cell niches in the body that have different potency (the ability to turn into many different types of cells) has also opened up research possibilities and could prove an easier and safer option for some treatments.
Below is some of the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS) work being conducted:
There is a lot of work going on currently and stem cell technology offers patient specific drug testing and widespread regeneration of tissue if tweaked correctly. Just as germ cells are reprogrammed so offspring has a (mostly) ‘clean slate’, when an old cell nucleus is transplanted into a embryonic stem cell, the environment inside reverts the behaviour back to a seemingly youthful profile, suggesting that at least some of aging might be reverted if the genetic material itself is undamaged. It’s not established yet whether, or how reprogramming is able to totally reset the clock, but work is ongoing.
The area has vast potential, especially combined with an accurate and cheap gene editing system. By introducing regulatory elements on behaviour or producing specialised cells before implantation, scientists can also avoid things like stem cell populations growing out of control into things you don’t want (here’s an example).