iPS Cells: The STEM of the Future

IPS cells could revolutionise medicine, taking conditions we now think of as fatal and providing cures, potentially saving millions of lives. Image: Shutterstock

Congratulations to Jeremy Simonetto (Year 8, St Patrick’s College) for being runner up in the 2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing.

Year 8 student at St Patrick’s College, Jeremy Simonetto, discusses the potential planet-changing uses for iPS cells in medical research in his entry, awarded runner-up in the UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, under the 2020 theme The Big Ideas Saving the Planet.

“Well-structured, with a coherent narrative, Jeremy offers a useful fly-through of the potential and pitfalls of stem cell research,” stresses one of the 2020 judges, science writer and editor Sara Phillips.

Read Jeremy’s full essay below.

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2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing runner-up essay

Imagine a future where genetic diseases are a thing of the past. Where conditions like leukemia can be cured in one treatment, and tissue grafts can be made bespoke to-order. A future that could be possible with the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells for short), which have the potential to revolutionise in the field of medicine.

Induced pluripotent stem cells are skin or blood cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to become stem cells – in other words, cells that can become any other bodily cell. Through inserting genes into the initial skin or blood cells, they begin a 2–3 week-long process in which the cell slowly converts back into a pluripotent state – a stem cell. From there, these cells are converted into embryoids, structures similar to early embryos. Then, after a few weeks, they are diverted to become particular cells, such as muscle or brain cells.

The introduction of iPS cells can provide a solution to an important ethical problem. Scientists are now starting to use iPS cells to make organoids or miniature versions of organs. These organoids can then be used as model environments for the testing of new medicines. But, what does this have to do with ethics? Well, there’s hope that these organoids can provide an alternative to animal testing, a cruel method of trialling drugs to ensure they are safe for use in humans. Additionally, testing on organoids is more accurate than on animals, as animals sometimes respond differently to humans, an instrumental factor in determining if a drug is okay for use by people.

By studying organoids, scientists can see when the earliest traces of genetic conditions emerge in a person’s cells. Image: Shutterstock

These iPS cell-derived organoids also have another use, which is currently under development. They can be used to model diseases in lab conditions, tracking the exact causes, spread and behaviour of sicknesses ranging from the common cold to malignant cancer. It works through creating a miniature copy of an organ before exposing it to a disease. From there, scientists watch the progression of the disease from its earliest stages up until its critical mass, studying how the body reacts. And this information can have amazing results. It can help researchers gain a better insight into the immune system and see how it responds to threats. It also helps to see what causes cancers to form and spread, to find ways to prevent and stop this from happening. Even now, scientists are modelling COVID-19 on organoids, to see why certain people have different reactions to the virus, why and how it infects and spreads around the body, and understand why it causes long-lasting damage to patients even after they’ve recovered.

That’s not all, however. iPS cells also help scientists to understand genetic diseases and how they are caused. By studying organoids, scientists can see when the earliest traces of genetic conditions emerge in a person’s cells. For many of these diseases, which start to appear during foetal development, such as haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, and muscular dystrophy, it could provide an insight into how they come about. With further research, it could even lead to ways of preventing these diseases in the womb before they even develop. A true medical ethos – prevention better than cure. 

Even with something as significant as this, we’ve only scratched the surface. There is hope that iPS cells themselves could provide the pathway to treating many serious illnesses. This can be done through transplants that do not rely on the patient’s acceptance or rejection of new cells because they are derived from their own. An example of this is in bone marrow diseases, such as leukemia. By making healthy bone marrow cells from already-existing skin cells, they can then be transplanted to replace the cancerous cells without the need for anti-rejection drugs. This is critical because many of these drugs involve strong immune suppression, which drastically weakens a person’s immune response, and has to be taken for the rest of their life. Additionally, in patients who can’t take anti-rejection drugs (for example, as a result of medical complications or health conditions) it will increase the transplants’ rate of success because it does not rely on the risky chance of acceptance. The same principle with bone marrow diseases can be applied to treat a myriad of other conditions, from cirrhosis to Type 1 diabetes.

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But, while all these potential advancements are within our grasp, how could this change the future for our planet? Well, when you look at it, the possibilities of iPS cells are endless. The diseases mentioned above are just a few of the thousands that iPS cells could help to treat. It could revolutionise medicine, taking conditions we now think of as fatal and providing cures, potentially saving millions of lives. Even making certain diseases extinct forever. iPS cells, the stem of the future.

For the 2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing we asked Australian high school students to enter 800-word essays responding to the 2020 theme of saving the planet, identifying and discussing a problem in the world that has yet to be solved by contemporary science and technology.

Read the other winning entries:

STEM Contributor

Author: STEM Contributor

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