7 Facts About Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Stem cell cultures in a lab at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California Irvine. Image credit: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Stem cells are the zenith of tissue regeneration and coveted for research on treating difficult diseases. Unlike other cells, stem cells are blank slates that can be turned into any type of specialized cell. For years, the only reliable sources for obtaining these cells were discarded or frozen embryos, but many ethical and religious objections served as roadblocks to research. However, in 2006, Japan's Shinya Yamanaka made a groundbreaking discovery: he found that adult cells could be reprogrammed into any other cell types by adding four genes to make them behave like embryonic stem cells. The adult cells treated this way are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).

Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 2012, though two years later he came clean about poor record keeping in a 2000 paper after a colleague, Haruko Obokata, admitted to improper obtaining of images in her stem cell studies; her papers were retracted after publication.

Scandals notwithstanding—and Yamanaka’s work has upheld, despite these controversies—iPS cells are being studied and developed in numerous labs around the world to create human tissue and potentially treat a variety of human diseases and illnesses. Here are seven key facts about these fascinating cells.

1. iPS CELLS AND EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS ARE NOT THE SAME, BUT VERY SIMILAR.

Both iPS cells and embryonic stem cells are self-renewing, which means they can produce copies of themselves indefinitely. Both cells can be reprogrammed into any kind of cell. But the two groups of cells are not exactly the same. Scientists continue to study the iPS cell mechanisms, because some of their genes behave differently than their embryonic counterparts.

2. THEY MAY ONE DAY PROVIDE ALL THE REPLACEMENT CELLS A PERSON NEEDS.

Or at least that’s the hope. Because iPS cells can be induced to become any kind of cell (by introducing additional genes), they may one day provide an unlimited supply of replacement cells and tissues for diseases and illnesses. Plus, when they are derived from a patient’s own cells, the body is more likely to accept them.

3. THEY MOST OFTEN COME FROM SKIN CELLS.

Currently the most common source of iPS cells is skin, but others are being derived from blood cells and mesenchymal stem cells, which make up connective tissues.

4. PEOPLE WITH TYPE 1 DIABETES COULD ONE DAY BE CURED BY THEIR OWN IPS CELLS.

In type 1 diabetes, the cells in charge of producing the hormone insulin are destroyed. Researchers made a significant breakthrough in developing a potential cure for type 1 diabetes when they found a way to turn iPS cells into insulin-producing cells and transplant them into the abdomens of diabetic mice. In theory, insulin-producing cells could one day be generated from a diabetic patient’s skin cells and used to restore function to the pancreas.

5. THEY HAVE SUCCESSFULLY HALTED DECLINING VISION IN HUMANS.

In 2013, scientists at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, took skin cells from a 70-year-old patient with age-related macular degeneration and cultivated retinal cells from them. Then, they transplanted these cells into the patient’s eye in the hopes of halting her macular degeneration. In the year and seven months since the patient’s surgery, her decline in vision has stopped, and her body hasn’t rejected the transplanted tissue.

6. MICE WITH HYPOTHYROIDISM APPEAR TO BE CURED BY IPS CELLS.

People with thyroid cancer or disorders such as hypothyroidism that require removal of the thyroid often must take lifelong medications, which come with their own unpleasant side effects. A recent study in Cell Stem Cell showed that iPS cells from mice could be converted into thyroid cells. When these cells were transplanted into the mice, they functioned as a thyroid gland, essentially curing the animals of hypothyroidism. The same could potentially work in humans one day.

7.IPS-DERIVED NEURON CELLS COULD OFFER RELIEF FOR PARKINSON'S.

Parkinson’s disease is a common neurodegenerative disease in which certain types of brain cells called dopaminergic neurons start to die. In recent years, studies and clinical trials have looked into turning stem cells and iPS cells into dopaminergic neurons and transplanting them into the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. Some have yielded promising—but very preliminary—results.

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97 Percent of Us Are Washing Our Hands All Wrong
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Most of us know the importance of washing our hands, but we're still pretty clueless when it comes to washing them the right way. As CNN reports, we fall short of washing our hands effectively 97 percent of the time.

That number comes from a new study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that looked at 383 participants in a test-kitchen environment. When they were told to wash their hands, the vast majority of subjects walked away from the sink after less than 20 seconds—the minimum hand-washing time recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them also failed to dry their hands with a clean towel.

The researchers had participants cooking and handling raw meats. Because they didn't wash their hands properly, volunteers were spreading potentially dangerous germs to spice jars 48 percent of the time, contaminating refrigerator handles 11 percent of the time, and doing the same to salads 5 percent of the time.

People who don't wash their hands the correct way risk spreading harmful microbes to everything they touch, making themselves and those they live with more susceptible to certain infections like gastrointestinal illness and respiratory infections. Luckily, the proper hand-washing protocol isn't that complicated: The biggest change most of us need to make is investing more time.

According to the CDC, you need to rub your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds to get rid of harmful bacteria. A helpful trick is to sing "Happy Birthday" twice as you wash—once you're finished, you should have passed the 20-second mark. And if your bathroom or kitchen doesn't have a clean towel to dry your hands with, let them air-dry. 

[h/t CNN]

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This Mysterious Condition Makes People Think Bugs Are Crawling Under Their Skin
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After seeing a spider or beetle scurry past you, it’s normal to get a creepy-crawly feeling, even if you know there’s nothing on you. For many people, though, the persistent sensation of phantom insects or parasites crawling underneath their skin—known as formication—is very real, Newsweek reports.

The condition is called delusional infestation, and although cases have been documented around the world, there hasn’t been enough research to determine if it’s a skin condition or psychological disorder. However, two new studies are attempting to shed light on the mysterious ailment that can cause symptoms such as itching, fatigue, joint pain, rashes or lesions, and difficulty concentrating. Some people have reported picking “fibers” out of their skin.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital believe tens of thousands of Americans could have this condition, making it more common than previously thought. Their study, published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, found that people with the condition are often “resistant to medical evidence [showing that there is no infestation] and reluctant to pursue psychiatric evaluation.” Some patients, convinced that they have something crawling underneath their skin, self-harm with tweezers, bleach, or razor blades.

The researchers stopped short of calling it a psychological condition, but they did conclude that schizophrenia, dementia, other psychiatric conditions, and drug use can trigger delusional infestation in some cases, Science News reports.

Another new study, published in the journal Annals of the Academy of Medicine of Singapore [PDF], also seemed to favor a psychological explanation for the condition. The researchers noted that Chinese patients with the condition were treated with antipsychotics, and 10 of the 11 patients with isolated cases of delusional infestation (who had no other underlying disorders) improved with medication.

However, other researchers have drawn different conclusions, arguing that the condition is the skin's response to “tick-borne pathogens” typically associated with Lyme disease. The condition has gone by several names over the years, including Morgellons disease—a term coined in 2004 by a medical researcher and mother who says she found “fibers” on her young son’s skin after he kept scratching at the "bugs" he claimed were there. Regardless of the origin, what's clear is that the condition has very real consequences for those who suffer from it, and more research is needed to find suitable treatments.

[h/t Newsweek]

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