By Sarah

I am a neurologist interested in the genetics of movement disorders, the cerebellum, and the potential of induced pluripotent stem cells to better understand and model inherited cerebellar disorders. I have just completed my PhD with Profs. John Hardy and Henry Houlden at the Department of Molecular Neuroscience, Institute of Neurology, UCL and am continuing to work as a clinician scientist at UCL and Tuebingen, Germany.

Introducing cells with a lot of potential

I felt it was time for a “cell” post here. No pain, no surface electrodes or imaging data —


Not just simple cells however, but the most amazing cells on earth: induced pluripotent stem cells.

With the original publication in 2007 1 describing the reprogramming of adult human terminally differentiated somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) this fascinating technique has since initiated further innumerable  ground-breaking  research and two involved pioneers have finally been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.



Figure 1: Nobel Prize awardees in 2012, reproduced from






Briefly, via transfection with lenti-, Sendai-, retroviruses, minicircles, piggyBac, miRNA, mRNA or episomal plasmids that carry different pluripotency-associated transcription factors (the most commonly used combination of reprogramming factors consists of c-myc, SOX2, OCT4 and KLF4, also named ‘Yamanaka factors’) this reprogramming technique initiates a cascade of erasure and remodelling of epigenetic marks that turn previously fully differentiated somatic cells into so called induced pluripotent stem cells. These pluripotent cells display features similar to true human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and can be generated readily from adult human skin cells, or subsequently most other human fully differentiated tissues (see Figure 2 for a schematic).


Figure 2: Scheme of induced pluripotent stem cell generation: Somatic cells from adults can be cultured and reprogrammed to induced pluripotent stem cells by transient transfection with exogenous pluripotency factors. These factors are thought to change the epigenetic landscape of transfected cells towards silencing of differentiation-associated genes and enhanced transcription of endogenous pluripotency genes. Figure reproduced from 3.

Dependent on the technique used for reprogramming (miRNA, episomal plasmids, viral transfection, etc.) and the adult cell type starting the process with (fibroblasts, blood cells, renal epithelial cells from urine, etc.), the reprogramming process can take around 2-8 weeks and is variably efficient. Upon introduction of reprogramming factors, the cells reprogrammed to 100% will start forming colonies of pluripotent stem cells slowly. Given their enormous proliferative capacity these gain significant growth advantage over the non- or only partially reprogrammed cells in the dish. They can then be isolated based on expression of surface markers or reporter genes, their morphology or based on media and surface conditions that additionally select for their growth. Extensive validation and rigorous quality control of iPSC clones is necessary. This includes differentiation capacity in vitro and in vivo (even though nowadays less common), expression of endogenous pluripotency markers, silencing of exogenous transcription factors and exclusion of chromosomal abnormalities or transgene integration.

The iPSC clones can then be differentiated into almost any cell type of the human body – isn’t this magic? – presupposed the existence of efficient differentiation protocols that suppress pluripotency and guide the cells to their desired fate. Depending on cell type and individual hypotheses of the respective studies, generated cells can be analysed using classical cellular phenotyping assays investigating apoptosis, cell cycle, cell metabolism, membrane texture, cell migration, cell growth, nuclear or cytoplasmic foci, cell shape, cytoskeletal reorganisation, neurite outgrowth, mitochondrial mass, mitochondrial membrane potential, ROS production, protein localisation, expression and quantification, etc.  The sky is the limit, really (and your cell culture skills, patience, assay optimisation endurance and money, obviously…).

Neuronal cells have been amongst the earliest cell types to be differentiated from hESCs 4 5 and hiPSCs 6 7 with the help of efficient and robust differentiation protocols. Approaches include co-culture with neural inducing feeder cells, in vitro generation of suspension based three-dimensional embryoid bodies exposed to retinoids in a stage specific manner or direct pharmacological inhibition of transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-beta)- and bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)-signalling performed on a monolayer of confluent stem cells – a process the field calls ‘dual SMAD inhibition’. All outlined procedures reliably initiate ‘neural induction’ and efficient ‘neural conversion’ representing important early checkpoints in any protocol that generates neurons from iPSCs. The resulting neural precursor cells can be “patterned“ (second step) by application or absence of developmentally rationalised extrinsic cues, and finally be terminally differentiated (third step) towards region-specific glial and neuronal subtypes.

Interestingly, unless differentiated iPSC-derived neurons are “forced“ to age (e.g. via progerin expression 8), this technology models human developmental processes and diseases 9 10 in a fetal system 11. An ever-growing number of studies nonetheless confirm mutant hiPSC-derived neurons obtained from patients with inherited disease – including adult-onset disorders – do successfully recapitulate central cellular pathomechanisms despite their fetal characteristics 12-18. Furthermore, in addition to confirming known and uncovering novel cellular and molecular pathomechanisms for a range of sporadic and inherited disorders 13 16, human iPSCs have also been used to screen for novel potential therapeutics successfully 19-21 and have been helpful in dissecting genetic and non-genetic factors driving neuronal degeneration 18.

As introduced here, the ground-breaking discovery of efficient reprogramming of adult human fibroblasts into iPSCs in 2007 1 initiated an unprecedented paradigm shift for regenerative medicine with even more unmet potential for neurology and neurodegeneration. Ever since, only nine years have passed. We are all very excited and curious for the next nine years to come!


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  19. Yang YM, Gupta SK, Kim KJ, et al. A small molecule screen in stem-cell-derived motor neurons identifies a kinase inhibitor as a candidate therapeutic for ALS. Cell stem cell 2013;12(6):713-26.
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