The field of regenerative medicine revolves around the capacity of a subset of cells, called stem cells, to become the mature tissues of the adult human body. By studying stem cells, we hope to develop methods for treating a wide variety of diseases. For instance, we hope to develop methods for making stem cells become cardiovascular cells in the lab, which could then be used to rapidly screen large numbers of drugs that may be used to treat cardiovascular disease. We are also trying to create skeletal tissue from stem cells so that we may be able to help treat people with catastrophic skeletal injuries such as wounded soldiers.
Until recently, the most flexible type of stem cell known was the embryonic stem cell. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can give rise to all cell types in the body. In contrast, stem cells found in the adult are considered only multipotent, in that they can only become a limited number of mature cells. Breakthroughs in the past five years have indicated that it is possible to “reprogram” adult skin cells and make them become pluripotent, like stem cells from an embryo. These new kinds of cells are called “induced pluripotent cells” or iPS cells. This has lead to great excitement within the scientific community because it raises the possibility that we may use this technology to rapidly create pluripotent stem cells from a large host of human diseases using easy to obtain tissue like skin and fat from affected individuals.
Our laboratory is in the unique position to test this hypothesis. We have derived several normal embryonic stem cell lines and iPS cells from normal skin. Furthermore, we have derived a new embryonic stem cell line and induced pluripotent stem cells from fibroblasts harboring an inherited mutation that results in severe cardiovascular and bone disease that affects more than 7,500 Californians, called Marfan’s Syndrome.
We have created stem cells lines, both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells from cells having this disease. We have compared these cells to normal embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells to examine exactly what makes these diseased cells behave in a way to have impaired bone formation. In addition, we have completed the differentiation, banking and full characterization of vascular cells derived from Marfan’s Syndrome embryonic stem cells and Marfan’s syndrome induced pluripotent stem cells. We have seen that the cells with Marfan’s syndrome have a particular signaling pathway that has functional disregulation compared to normal, healthy cells. We have been able to explore how this disease process manipulates this pathway to cause this specific disease. Through this kind of modeling, we can use these cells to screen for treatment as well as model the disease in a way to manipulate the specific pathways this disease impacts to hopefully bring clinical treatments to patients who suffer from this disease.