The CSIR's Gene Expression and Biophysics Group, headed by Dr Musa Mhlanga, has generated the first induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in Africa. The ability to grow these stem cells, a complex skill currently available at only a handful of institutions in the United States, Europe and Japan, has revolutionised the way that researchers are able to investigate and understand diseases. It also holds enormous promise in what is known as 'regenerative medicine': growing new tissue to replace diseased tissue in sick individuals. With the advances made at the CSIR, Africa is now set to benefit from this new and powerful technology.
Dr Janine Scholefield, one of the key CSIR researchers involved in generating iPSCs, has recorded video footage of rhythmically beating cells through a microscope. The beating pattern is distinctive, and easily recognisable as heart muscle cells. These cells, however, didn't come from a heart, but were, instead, transformed into heart cells, from skin cells taken from an adult. This is the basis of iPSC technology, which induces adult cells (like skin cells) to revert back into stem cells, which are cells at the earliest stage of life. These early stem cells can then be programmed to become any type of adult cell, such as skin, heart, brain and blood cells.
The medical possibilities of iPSCs are extremely exciting, with the growing of new tissue to be transplanted as needed for people who are ill. It could be used for restoring sight by replacing defective tissue in the eye; transplanting new heart muscle cells into people with serious heart diseases; giving people with anaemia new healthy blood cells; even harnessing brain cells to treat disorders such as Parkinson's disease. Another powerful way in which to harness this technology is to create what is known as 'disease-in-a-dish' models - growing diseased tissue from stem cells of sick patients. Since stem cells can be made from a patient's own cells, the cells contain the exact same genetic characteristics as the patient these were taken from, meaning that this tissue will be 'sick' in the same way as the patient.
Scholefield has collaborated with peers i including Professor Susan Kidson at the University of Cape Town Medical School to develop these models. This allows for the testing of possible cures, or understanding the disease, without having to subject a patient to invasive surgery or untested trial medication. Part of the novelty of this technology lies in the fact that stem cells can be made from almost any individual with almost any disease, simply by taking a skin sample from that person. Another benefit of using iPSCs is that they bypass the ethical controversy surrounding classical stem cells, which must be taken from embryos.
The complexity and difficulty in creating stem cells and using them to understanding and curing disease are in the combination of technical skills and proficiency required across many biological and molecular disciplines. Scholefield spent three years at Oxford University on a prestigious Oxford Nuffield Medical Fellowship, working with many international experts to perfect the technique of creating iPSCs. She now forms part of a team of CSIR scientists with expertise in various emerging health technologies, who work to apply this knowledge in an African context.
According to the CSIR's gene expression and biophysics group leader, Dr Mhlanga, "Cutting-edge medical research is not useful to Africa if knowledge is being created and applied only in the developed world. Given the high disease burden in Africa, our aim is to create knowledge, as well as be innovators and expert practitioners of the newest and best technologies."
This ground-breaking work has received long-term strategic and financial support from the Department of Science and Technology.