Could you grow me an eye? I have some skin to spare – First Human Transplant from iPS Stem Cell

Macular Degeneration

First retinal graft to correct macular degeneration from iPS stem cells. Credit: National Eye Institute of the NIH

Doctors use Nobel prize winner’s research to create a retinal transplant from dedifferenciated skin cells.

Ah, to be a lizard! Chop off it’s tails, it’ll just grow a fresh one. In humans, such a feat would fall into the realm of cheap superhero fantasy. Or would it?

Surgeons routinely perform tissue transplantation but donor tissue is scarce and transplantation can be highly perilous. The body is trained to recognized foreign cells, and if it reacts against the donor tissue, it can trigger rejection of the graft or life threatening GVHD (graft versus host disease). To prevent this, transplanted patient are put under strong immunosuppressants, which put them at risk of infection. So altogether, while this procedure is staggeringly marvellous when it works, there is a need for improvement.

Ideally, we would be able to create a whole new immunologically compatible tissue.

All of the cells in our body originate from one embryonic stem cell which divides to produce millions of identical cells. Depending on where each cell ends up in the body, it will change, or “differentiate” into a skin cell, an intestinal cell, a heart cell etc., but each cell receives the same genetic material. As such, if you could get your hands on a cell before it differentiates, by putting it in the right environment you should be able to change it into any type of cell you need.

In 2012, Pr.Yamanaka shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medecine for addressing this problem by reasoning that since every cell in our body carries the same genetic information, you should be able to take any cell out of its environment and ‘trick’ it into “dedifferenciating”, to create new stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Having been granted permission, this month doctors in Japan used this research to carry out the first human retinal tissue graft created from iPS cells dedifferentiated from patient’s skin cells.

Like all novel therapies, there is always a possibility that unforeseen undesirable consequences could arise, but this technique could be extended to other applications, such as treatment of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Should this graft be successful, it could mark a seminal moment of modern medicine.

For more information, see here. Please follow @Marianne_Guenot for questions, comments and suggestions.

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Scientist studying the ins and outs of the interactions between the human host and the pathogens that infect it. I obtained my PhD in 2012 in the University of Bordeaux, France and I am currently working at Imperial College London, UK. I aim to share my passion for science by making it simple and approachable, so please feel free to post questions you'd like answered on twitter.com/Marianne_Guenot

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