Scanning electron micrograph of embryonic kidney cells

Using stem cells

Stem cells hold great potential for treating disease

If we can learn how to control the differentiation of stem cells, we might be able to remedy many kinds of cell damage in the body. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, and so the most versatile, but their use is not without controversy.

Some pharmaceutical companies use stem cells to test new drugs. Stem cells for studying specific diseases – including Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy and type 1 diabetes – have been made by reprogramming adult cells from patients into a pluripotent state.

Using advances in our understanding of how embryonic stem cells maintain pluripotency, scientists have been able to ‘reprogramme’ adult cells into a pluripotent state – so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The simplest reprogramming method enforces the expression of a set of core transcription factors, known to be essential in maintaining pluripotency in embryonic stem cells, in the adult somatic cell. This gives rise to cell colonies that appear to be morphologically and molecularly similar to embryonic stem cells.

These iPS cells are allowing new, more accurate drug discovery, through more accurate toxicity studies and a better understanding of the drug pathway at the cellular level. Furthermore, the ability for iPS cells to be created from a range of somatic cells may allow individual patients' cells to be used to create iPS cells harbouring patient-specific mutations. Research into ALS/MND (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/motor neurone disease) has used this new technique, allowing the creation of motor neurones from iPS cells from ALS patients, which can be used to study the disease and test new drugs.

Lead image:

Scanning electron micrograph of embryonic kidney cells.

Annie Cavanagh/Wellcome Images CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘The Cell’ in February 2011 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Cell biology, Medicine, Health, infection and disease
The Cell
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development