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Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

What are induced pluripotent stem cells? What possibilities do they offer in terms of stem cell research and replacement therapy? Read ahead to get a basic idea.
BiologyWise Staff
Before we even begin discussing induced pluripotent stem cells, let's get a closer look at stem cells and pluripotency. To make things easy, stem cells can be understood as blank cells who are yet to be assigned specific biological features, characteristics and physiological functions. After being created as blank canvasses, these cells proceed to undergo mitosis and it is after this that they differentiate into different cell types and go ahead on their own paths to perform their intended biological functions. For instance, among 1,000 stem cells, 500 can differentiate into various types of blood cells (hematopoietic stem cells), 300 can go on to become smooth muscle cells while the remaining 200 can take the shape of lymphatic cells post differentiation.

Now, what type of specialized cell a stem cell goes on to become depends upon its potency, which is nothing but the differentiation potential of a stem cells. Based upon this criterion, stem cells can be classified as unipotent (a stem cell that can differentiate into only a single type of specialized cells), totipotent (a stem cell that can differentiate into all types of anatomical cells), multipotent (a stem cell that can differentiate into many cells of a limited handful of lineages), oligopotent (a stem cell that can differentiate into very limited types of specific cells) and pluripotent (stem cells that can differentiate into specified cells that make up the three germ layers in an organism - the endoderm, the mesoderm and the ectoderm). If that was clear, then let's move ahead to the next segment and understand what induced pluripotent stem cells are.

What are Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells?

As mentioned above, pluripotent stem cells are those that can differentiate to become specialized cells that make up the three primary germ layers - endoderm (the tissues lining the inner surface of the lungs, gastrointestinal tract and the stomach), ectoderm (tissues of the nervous system and the topmost dermal layer) and mesoderm (layer of cells and tissues that make up the musculoskeletal system, the urogenital organs and blood). Induced pluripotent cells are stem cells that are derivatives of non-pluripotent cells and the pluripotency is induced or artificially forced upon them. This forced pluripotency involves compelling specific genes to get more expressed via artificial intervention. The non pluripotent stem cells upon which pluripotency is genetically forced are usually adult somatic cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells are very close, in terms of features, gene expression profile and characteristics, to embryonic stem cells and these self renewing can form into any type of biological tissue. This opens up lots of doors in terms of treatment of degenerative diseases and medical conditions requiring massive tissue replacement and cellular regeneration of damaged organs.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Advantages

Now, you must be wondering what is the objective of inducing pluripotency in stem cells when naturally pluripotent stem cells already exist in the body. Well, before we proceed to discuss the advantages of induced pluripotent stem cells over their naturally occurring counterparts, let's take a fleetingly brief look at the embryonic stem cells scenario. Trust me, it's relevant. As you must have been able to understand by now, pluripotent stem cells are the most flexible and versatile of the lot as they can be made to take any form and, hence, have a wider range of medical utility than any other category of stem cells. Nearly all stem cells found in an embryo are pluripotent as the embryo stage is the basic developmental stage of life and specific organs and physiological systems are on their way to formation. This mandates that stem cells have the maximum differentiation potential.

However, the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research and therapeutic application is subject to a lot of controversy as the use of human embryos for the purpose of research and treatment is viewed as immoral termination of life and a violation of the primary human right to the possibility of being born and having a life in this world. There are parties on both sides to this controversy - those who are pro research and those who are against it - but a lengthy discussion over it is not within the scope of this article's titular issue. Coming to adult stem cells, pluripotency becomes a rarer phenomenon as compared to embryonic stem cells, the simple reason being that in adults, all organs are completely formed and stem cells are needed only for cellular replacement and tissue reparation purposes. Now, doesn't that make inducing pluripotency on non pluripotent adult stem cells a pragmatic and medically viable middle path between controversial embryonic stem cells and extremely difficult-to-get adult pluripotent stem cells? These induced stem cells can be easily used to treat a lot of terminal and degenerative conditions without giving two hoots for controversy and unavailability!

Induced pluripotent stem cells are as flexible and versatile as embryonic stem cells and the best part about the former is that they can be utilized without carrying any emotional baggage of guilt or apprehension of condemnations and protests. Forcing pluripotency upon non pluripotent adult stem cells is a harmonious way to further the scope of medical science and bring about path breaking advancements in treating extremely serious medical cases such as terminal illnesses, acute organ damage, neurodegenerative diseases and extensive tissue damage due to a deadly injury caused by severe physical trauma.