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Stem Cells for the Non-stem Cell Specialist

Maria Thompson on January 31, 2013

In our previous post on stem cells, we discussed how human-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are being used to model “disease in a dish.” Making stem cells from terminally differentiated cells is still relatively new technology. Shinya Yamanaka first described the technique in a 2006 publication, and labs across the world now use his basic principle of turning back the clock on cells through the introduction of transcription factors. There are a lot of questions biomedical researchers and pharmaceutical companies can address using iPS cells to model disease. But what if you are not a stem cell specialist?

Induced pluripotent stem cells are available for purchase as a research tool, either as terminally differentiated cells, or as stem cells (shown here). Image source reference1

The most straightforward option, for researchers who do not want to invest the time and money to become a “stem cell lab,” is to buy terminally differentiated stem cells. Launched last July, Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) has a product line called MyCell Services that makes “disease in a dish,” to order. To do this, customers send in samples of patient blood and CDI generates iPS cells from blood. Some of those cells are stored, while some are differentiated into the customer’s cells of interest. The customer receives 96-well plates of terminally differentiated cells (e. g. neurons) for their experiments. Because CDI banks the iPS cells, the customer can order more plates of differentiated cells as needed. It allows anyone to test their hypotheses about human disease in specific patient populations, an innovation that earned them a place on The Scientist’s “Top Ten Innovations of 2012” list.

CDI also offers a less customized service, one that is useful for in vitro drug discovery or toxicology screening. They make iPS cells for purchase that have been terminally differentiated into cardiomyocytes, endothelial cells, hepatocytes, or neurons. This service provides researchers with hard-to-access primary human cells, at a lower cost than customized reprogramming.

One step back from receiving differentiated cells is receiving reprogrammed cells. A few companies distribute iPS cell lines. StemGent has a custom service that reprograms cells for customers, delivering iPS cells in return. System Biosciences has several stocks of iPS cell lines that they have generated, including lines from patients with specific diseases. Here, it’s possible to purchase “disease in a dish,” with iPS cell lines derived from patients with type I or type II diabetes, muscular dystrophy, glioblastoma, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and Metachromatic Leukodystrophy. For a more DIY approach, Millipore makes an iPS cell reprogramming kit and all the culturing reagents needed to go with the nascent stem cells.

With growing interest in using human iPS cells for research and development comes growing demand from non-stem cell specialists. Outsourcing options are just beginning to show up in the market, and it’s a niche that’s sure to grow. Fortunately, research using stem cells is not off-limits to non-stem cell researchers. While it continues to be an independent field of research, it has matured to the point of being a tool, as well.

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