Stem cells use in the medical field is a promising and quickly growing field. This week, two exciting announcements have rocked the field of stem cells and suggest that soon this fascinating and potentially history-making therapy will finally be available as a treatment option. First, researchers in Denmark revealed their plans to start the first-ever stem cell test on humans in 2015. To add to this already exciting disclosure, researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center completed their method of vastly improving stem cell techniques.

In 2006, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Peace Prize for his discovery of reprograming adult cells into pluripotent cells. His creation of induced pluripotent cells (iPSCs) has dramatically shifted stem cell research. No longer did scientists have to rely on embryonic stem cells; now abundant and harmless skin cells could be reversed into iPSCs, and from there transformed into virtually any type of cell.

However, like all scientific discoveries, Yamanaka’s technique of creating iPSC served as a starting point rather than an end goal for stem cell research. Today, NYU researchers have further added onto this technique, making it faster, safer, and more importantly closer for use in regenerative medicine. "This is a very exciting advance," Dr. Ruth Lehmann, director of the Kimmel Center for Stem Cell Biology, explained in a press release. "The new technology developed by the Stadtfeld lab to reprogram differentiated cells efficiently and effectively brings the prospect of stem cell technology for safe use in regenerative medicine ever so much closer."

Yamanaka’s technique involved the artificial expression of four key genes, dubbed OKSM, for Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and myc. Together these genes help to persuade an adult skin cell to revert back to a state similar to an early embryonic cell. Unfortunately, this technique often faced technical obstacles, and due to this the chances of converting adult cells into stable iPSCs was one percent or less and took weeks to occur. Thinking outside the box, the NYU scientist used a rather simple approach to solve a largely complex problem, and surprisingly it worked.

The researchers took the traditional OKSM genes and combined them with common compounds: Wnt and TGF-β, which regulate multiple growth-related processes in cells, and Vitamin C, which of course is most famously known for its antioxidant properties. “We especially wanted to know if these compounds could be combined to obtain stem cells at high efficiency," Dr. Matthias Stadtfeld, lead researcher on the project explained in the press release.

Results showed the team’s hunch was correct. The addition of these compound did improve stem cell efficiency, and quite dramatically so. The OKSM method on its own can slowly convert these cells to stem cells with up to 30 percent efficiency. Using OKSM together with the three compounds brought the efficiency to nearly 100 percent in less than a week. The researchers were able to increase the number of stem cells obtained from adult skin cells by more than 20-fold, when compared with the traditional method.

In an email to Medical Daily, Stadtfeld explained that although at the moment these findings don’t directly affect everyday people, “in the long-run they should help to make it easier to derive patient-specific stem cell lines. …They should make the study of a wide range of disorders in cell culture easier.”

While the project is not involved in any human trials at this point, Stadtfeld went on to explain that in the future his team would like to further increase the efficiency of their stem cell derivation and improve their ability to generate all adult cell types.

Source: Stadtfeld M, et al. Stem Cell Reports. 2014.