By: Samantha Moolman
A team of researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the first in Africa to establish groundbreaking biomedical stem cell technology, which could hold the key to finding cures for some of Africa’s most prevalent diseases.
The CSIR Department of Biological Sciences’ Gene Expression and Biophysics Group, led by Dr Musa Mhlanga, success- fully generated the first induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in Africa, in December last year.
The iPS cell technology involves inducing adult cells (like skin cells) to revert back to stem cells that can differentiate into specialised cell types. This means that the early stem cells can be programmed to become any type of adult cell, such as skin, heart, brain and blood cells.
Dr Janine Scholefield, one of the key researchers involved in generating iPS cells at the CSIR, was the first biologist in South Africa to record video footage of cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells, generated from adult skin cells.
Scholefield was recently recruited to join Mhlanga’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow, and started with the experimental protocol at the end of October. By early December, the team had generated iPS cell lines, each line indicating a single genetic background. “It was remarkable and completely took my breath away,” says Scholefield, describing the moment she saw evidence of the first cardiomyocytes.
She had been searching for other stem cells, which have a very distinct flat disc- like structure. The cell colony she found, however, was folded up and three-dimen- sional – and then it started beating. “It was apparent as soon as I saw it. You know you’ve done it right when you can see the beating,” she says, explaining that rhythmically beating cells is one of the characteristics of making a heart cell lineage.
Still, Scholefield was incredulous, and called in lab partners to verify what she was seeing. The team was able to keep the iPS cells going for two to three weeks – which she says is a significant amount of time – before the surrounding cells started dying.
The CSIR’s breakthrough is especially significant because it provides an alternative to the ever-controversial issue of embryonic stem cell derivation, the process whereby stem cells – cells present at the earliest stage of life – are generated using discarded in vitro fertilisation (IVF) fertilised eggs.
“We have to be aware, as scientists, that there are a number of people who are uncomfortable with that kind of work,” says Scholefield. “This technology, however, circumvents these issues altogether.”
The argument with embryonic stem cell derivation is whether or not IVF embryos constitute human life. However, iPS cell technology uses adult skin cells and not embryonic cells to create stem cells. “This bypasses the ethical conundrum and creates an advantage out of traditional stem cell technology,” she says, adding that most people are not likely to take offence with the 2 mm × 2 mm-wide skin sample used in the new process.
Another significant advantage of the new technology is that the iPS cells generated will have the exact genetics of the individual who provides the sample. This opens up new medical possibilities for biomedical stem cell technology, including the ability to grow new tissue, which, in application, can restore sight by replacing defective tissue in the eye or restore the heart by transplanting new heart muscle cells into people with heart disease.
Similarly, people with anaemia can be given healthy new blood cells and harnessing new brain cells can treat those with Parkinson’s disease. “It’s theoretical at the moment,” says Scholefield, “but not improbable, and that’s what makes the research so exciting.”
Scientists will also be able to generate what they call ‘disease in a dish’ models, which is the process of growing stem cells from sick patients into diseased tissue. “The power of this is really remarkable,” says Scholefield. “Now we can compare healthy heart cells with unhealthy heart cells in a Petri dish, without invasive surgery, because the cells contain the exact genetics of the person they came from.”
This is especially important to the CSIR’s Gene Expression and Biophysics lab, which is working towards applying this knowledge in an African context.
“Cutting-edge medical research is not useful to Africans if knowledge is being created and applied only in the developed world,” says Mhlanga. “Given the high disease burden on Africa, our aim is to become creators of knowledge, as well as innovators and expert practitioners of the newest and best technologies.”
His laboratory is particularly interested in host-pathogen interaction – how a pathogen gets into an individual and what makes that individual more, or less, susceptible to a particular disease. The group aims to research diseases prevalent in Africa and is, therefore, interested in South African individuals who have the genetics they want to research.
Scholefield recently submitted a comprehensive ethics report to the CSIR Research Ethics Committee. Once approved, the team will be allowed to sample skin cells from South African individuals to further research the treatment of typically African diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
“The Research Ethics Committee has a mandate to look through the research protocol to ensure that the science is sound and that we’re not exploiting people in any way,” she says, adding that the team hopes to have ethical approval within the month so they can start recruiting patient samples.