R&D News: RNA offers a safer way to reprogram cells
However, the techniques now used to transform cells pose some serious safety hazards. To deliver the genes necessary to reprogram cells to a pluripotent state, scientists use viruses carrying DNA, which then becomes integrated into the cell’s own DNA. But this so-called DNA-based reprogramming carries the risk of disrupting the cell’s genome and leading it to become cancerous.
Now, for the first time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have shown that they can deliver those same reprogramming genes using RNA, the genetic material that normally ferries instructions from DNA to the cell’s protein-making machinery.
However, the researchers say they cannot yet claim to have reprogrammed the cells into a pluripotent state. To prove that, they would need to grow the cells in the lab for a longer period of time and study their ability to develop into other cell types - a process now underway in their lab. Their key achievement is demonstrating that the genes necessary for reprogramming can be delivered with RNA.
In 2006, researchers at Kyoto University showed they could reprogram mouse skin cells into a pluripotent, embryonic-like state with just four genes. More recently, other scientists have achieved the same result in human cells by delivering the proteins encoded by those genes directly into mature cells, but that process is more expensive, inefficient and time-consuming than reprogramming with DNA.
Peter Andrews, director of the Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, says the MIT team’s key advance is suppressing the cell’s immune response to RNA. He calls the work an interesting approach, but adds 'the jury’s out' on whether it will prove better than other methods.
“The next step would be to make iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) using this technique, says Andrews. The MIT researchers agree that determining whether this will work remains an open question.
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