Discovery speeds cell reprogramming

27 November 2017

CRM scientists have made a key discovery that could enhance the efficiency and the speed of the conversion of cells from one type to another in the lab – so called cell reprogramming.

This discovery could help to study diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, and boost supplies of cells for use in drug discovery research. 

The molecules – called SMAD2 and SMAD3 – can enhance the efficiency of reprogramming cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the distinctive ability to become any type of cell found in the body.

Skin cells becoming induced pluripotent stem cells
Skin cells becoming induced pluripotent stem cells

The team were surprised to find the same molecules can also boost direct conversions from one type of mature cell to another – including transforming skin cells into brain cells. Usually, converting human skin cells to functional brain cells in a dish takes around 50 days. The study found that adding either of the two molecules into a dish with the cells cuts the time taken to just 25 days.

CRM group leader Professor Keisuke Kaji led the international team of scientists who investigate molecular mechanisms of cell reprogramming. The reprogramming techniques are particularly helpful for producing cells that cannot be obtained from patients easily, such as brain cells. Such cells generated in the laboratory are also used for drug discovery and for screening new medicines for potential toxic effects. 

However, the most of currently available cell reprogramming techniques are inefficient, time consuming, and often fails to generate fully functional cells required for research or cell replacement therapies.

Professor Kaji, a Medical Research Council Senior Fellow at the CRM, said:

We have shown it is possible to boost reprogramming of diverse cell types using a single molecule. We hope this will stimulate further research to find other molecules that could have a similar – or even better – effect.

The study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was funded by the European Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Medical Research Council, Swedish Research Council and Wellcome.  

Full Reference: Ruetz et al (2017). Constitutively Active SMAD2/3 Are Broad-Scope Potentiators of Transcription-Factor-Mediated Cellular Reprogramming. Cell Stem Cell. Published Online: November 22, 2017 DOI: 



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