Many research labs around the world are focused on finding the most effective ways to reprogram an adult cell (a skin cell, for example) into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)—that is, cells that have the ability to develop into other tissues in the body. These cells not only offer researchers powerful tools to study a particular patient’s individual disease, but they have the potential to therapeutically replace diseased or damaged tissue in the patient from whom the cells originated.
Most experiments to reprogram adult cells employ viruses as vehicles to carry four particular genes—called reprogramming factors—into the nucleus of a cell. But genetic engineering carries its own risks, including the chance that these cells will continue replicating, eventually forming a tumor. What’s more, scientists are not exactly sure what the reprogramming factors do, on the molecular level, to promote the generation of iPSCs.
Could there be a safer and more predictable way to alter the expression of genes in cells, thereby reprogramming their DNA so they revert to their earlier, more malleable state?