For a while now, I have had the feeling that stem cell technology has had the capability of helping treat cancer in some shape or form. It  has only come to public attention very recently about a new type of stem cell – the Induced Pluripotent Stem cell (IPS) – that may have the capability to revolutionize the cancer treatment landscape. 

The Construction of an IPS Cell

IPS cells, unlike normal stem cells, are created by forcing a mature, differentiated cell into a non-specialised state i.e. “inducing” the unique ability that stem cells have – the ability to form whatever specialised cell is needed. These cells tend to be created from a normal ‘somatic‘ cell such as a skin cell or liver cell.

A skin biopsy is exposed to the ‘Yamanaka factors’ that induce a pluripotent stem cell population. The cells can then be differentiated into new cell tissue that can be introduced to take the place is faulty cells.

The ability to cause this was first examined by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University and published their findings in 2006. Since the discovery of exposing cells to, what are now termed, ‘Yamanaka factors‘, a lot of possibilities have been looked into, mainly those of combating disease and the regeneration of faulty tissue.

How Can They Help?

The possibilities of IPS cells seem almost endless. Having the ability to create any desired cell that you can think of and use it for replacement tissue or cells that will actively fight a disease sounds like something from a fairy tale. The cells can be used for example to produce properly working lung epithelial cells in cases of cystic fibrosis. By inducing pluripotency in somatic cells from the patient, the cell genome can then be repaired and once it is induced into a specific lung epithelial cell with a working CFTR protein, then technically the option to introduce these back into the patient and reduce the symptoms of cystic fibrosis becomes realistic. The repairing of liver tissue by inducing IPS cells into new, fully-functioning hepatocytes has the ability to reverse permanent liver damage.

The treatment can go even further when thought about in depth for example, can these cells be used to treat blindness by creating fully-functioning retinal cells? Can they rejuvenate bone density in those with osteoporosis? Such questions can’t help but sound hopeful and ignorant as with most scientific advancements, it is never as easy as it should be.

How Does This Relate to Cancer?

The idea of using these cells for cancer treatment comes in various forms. Firstly,  the cells have the advantage of personalising treatment for an individual. By the colonisation and testing of medication on differentiated IPS cells, you can discover what medication will be most effective for that particular patients’ cells. Secondly, and equally as important, immune cells such as T-Cells can be reprogrammed and multiplied to bolster a patients attack against a tumour cell. With the ability to manipulate the genome of these IPS cells and have them express whatever proteins are desired, T-Cell populations can be formed not only in great numbers but in great specificity for a certain antigen.

Too Good to Be True?

Some studies have suggested that although they have the capability to be used against cancer, they may well be capable of producing the disease themselves through an unregulated growth mechanism. This is because of their capability to self-renew. Their is much deliberation over this at the moment and nothing has been conclusively found to say that IPS cells can definitely become cancerous but it does seem to make sense for it to be a possibility. Although to remedy this, other studies have suggested the manipulation of the IPS cell genome can in itself prevent any potential activation of oncogenes to produce cancerous behaviours.

Further compabilities are still being tested as this technology is relatively new in terms of therapeutic science and quite frankly right now, it all seems a little too good to be true. The major advantage of the practice is the elimination of the use of embryonic stem cells which was the main ethical reasoning behind people being against the practice, opening the door for the long overdue development of the field. It is a very promising area of discovery indeed and with so many possibilities, you can’t help but believe that IPS cells are a serious progression in the fight against disease. For their true capabilities to be found though will take some time as again, nothing in science is at easy as it should be.


The original paper published in 2006 by Yamanaka in the journal Cell:

A press release stating the potential of IPS cells in terms of T-Cell engineering:

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Video courtesy of YouTube.