In 2014, Mick Bhatia and his team discovered that adult stem cells are hardwired to remember the type of cell they were originally. His breakthrough has not gone unnoticed. In December, the Canadian Cancer Society listed Bhatia’s research as one of the top ten discoveries of the year.
“We’ve known for several years now that you can take human skin cells and turn them into [pluripotent] stem cells that are almost identical to embryonic stem cells…[if] you’re taking cells from an individual, you can transplant those cells back in without fear of rejection,” Bhatia explained.
As he and his team learned however, the practice of reprogramming adult cells need not be restricted to skin tissue.
“We found…that you can take blood cells and turn them into pluripotent stem cells, but when you do that, it turns out these blood cells remember. So the stem cells derived from blood remember that they were blood,” Dr. Bhatia said.
When this observation was first recorded, Dr. Bhatia admits it was ignored.
“But then we started to notice a pattern and we started getting patients where we asked to take some blood and then asked to take some skin,” he said. By removing the patient as a variable, the researchers discerned that the cell origin determined how the new pluripotent stem cells would differentiate.
There are many areas in the medical field that will benefit from this advance in stem cell research; however the most prominent and immediately applicable is regenerative medicine. Since this work has only been done with blood so far, leukemia will be one of the first diseases to be treated in this manner.
“You give a drug like chemotherapy to kill the leukemia, but what happens is you kill the normal blood system. So if you can get a supply of the patient’s own blood cells and keep giving that to them at the same time as the chemotherapy, that actually allows the patient to undergo chemotherapy treatment for a longer period of time, which we know improves survival,” Bhatia explained.
Researchers can easily separate leukemic cells from healthy cells and reprogram the latter to stem cells capable of producing ten times as many blood cells.
Bhatia’s research can also be applied to cystic fibrosis. He explained that the complications associated with generating enough lung tissue would inhibit the process of testing new drugs to combat the disease. However, thanks to this development in stem cell technology, healthy lung tissue samples can be taken from CF patients and reprogrammed to lung-inclined stem cells.
Despite the implications of his work, Bhatia is as excited about his colleagues as he is about the research itself.
“What I love about this particular field that we’re in now is that…we’re working with chemists, we’re working with robotics specialists—these are people who don’t do anything with cell biology, but it’s so nice to work with people in other disciplines to solve a problem,” he said. “There’s nobody in the world doing this kind of work specifically.”