By Maria Imaz
What is a stem cell?
A stem cell is a cell whose job in the body is not yet determined. They have two key properties that define them from other cells. First, they can divide as many times as they like and second, they have the potential to specialise and develop into one of a whole host of different cells e.g. a liver cell, or a muscle cell.
Before they specialise, stem cells are characterised by their potential to become different kinds of cells – for example, stem cells that can become almost any kind of cell are called pluripotent stem cells. However, as these pluripotent stem cells develop and become committed to specialising into one particular cell type (e.g. a liver cell); they lose their ability to specialise into other cell types (their pluripotency) and become adult cells.
What do we do in our work with stem cells?
Some cells that have made this transition from pluripotent stem cell to specialised adult cell (in our case, we use skin cells) can be reprogrammed with a specific mix of factors, which effectively clean out the cells and turns them back into pluripotent stem cells again – like wiping a laptop or computer, it erases everything and puts it back to factory settings – that’s exactly what we’re doing. We call these reprogrammed cells ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ or iPS cells. Once we reprogramme the cells we aim to analyse them using some of the state-of-the-art technology that Sanger has to offer and make the results available to the wider scientific community.
A colony of iPS cells as seen under the microscope
Why is this work important?
Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells are incredibly useful for all sorts of research around the world where particular cell types are needed and classic stem cells are not an option. Pluripotent stem cells are more difficult to get hold of and often have ethical restrictions on them, so iPS cells are the perfect solution. Plus, by having all the iPS cells we produce analysed and made available to researchers all over the country means increased circulation of knowledge which will hopefully lead on to bigger and better research!
One of the labs in the new Cellular Generation and Phenotyping facility at the Sanger Institute
What will we be doing over the next few years?
Over the next few years we aim to collect skin samples from over 500 healthy volunteers and 500 patients with a range of genetic disorders. We will grow skin cells from all these samples and reprogramme them to create unique and individual iPS cells. As we produce these cells, they will be stored, ready for researchers requesting to use them in their work – this ‘bio-bank’ will eventually become the biggest and most detailed collection of such cells in the UK.
Maria Imaz works in the new Cellular Generation and Phenotyping facility at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
Maria will be one of the explainers on the Royal Society stand on Saturday and would be more than happy to tell you more about her work if you are interested.