In class recently we discussed the application of plasmids in Biotechnology. I was blown away with the thought that modern science had the ability to think so abstractly and apply this scientific breakthrough to the real world. The idea of the plasmid being able to manipulate the gene expression in a cell is remarkable and the Nanomedicine Lab at the University of Manchester is finding a way to engineer Regenerative Medicine with the use of Stem Cells and bioengineered plasmids.
As we all know (or should now know) plasmids are small DNA molecules that carry genes for specialized functions, which may include resistance to drugs like antibiotics. However, scientists are now able to insert “new” genes into the plasmid and use that to genetically alter anything they wish to genetically alter. In this case, the scientist at the University of Manchester have discovered a way to safely reprogram somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells (iPS) found in the embryo.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Firstly, what is a stem cell? Simply put, stem cells are cells that can become any other cell type in an organism. In addition, when a stem cell replicates it has the ability to decide whether the cell will become a stem cell or a new cell with a more specialized function like a red blood cell, or brain cell. The application of stem cells are enumerable and with the help of modern science the research into how stem cells can be used is promising and groundbreaking. For example, one day it may be possible to create a healthy heart muscle cells and then inject those cells into a patient with a chronic heart disease. The continuing investigation in this is whether these cells are able to create heart cells or just stimulate the growth of new blood vessels. Stem cells may be the cure to many ailments in the world; however, the ability to manipulate stem cells is incredibly difficult. Until now!
Dr. Kostas Kostarelos, the principal investigator of this research, states that “We have induced somatic cells within the liver of adult mice to transiently behave as pluripotent stem cells.” He goes on to explain his process, but reveals the key to his discovery. THE USE OF PLASMIDS! This reprogramming technique was derived from noble-prize winning Dr. Shinya Yamanaka whose discovery involves reprogramming somatic cells by introducing four genes through the use of a virus. This leads to the potential problem for uncontrolled cell growth. However, the Nanomedicine Lab’s approach utilizes large columns of plasmid DNA to alter the cells. The plasmids have short lives and, as a result, this problem is greatly reduced. As a result, the cells forgo the risk of creating tumors and open the world to more possibilities with Stem Cell Research. Hopefully, one day, the world will be rid of all diseases due to the harnessed power of stem cells.