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Scientists Figured Out How to Erase a Cell’s Memory and Turn It Into a Stem Cell

Published in Biology.

For decades, scientists have been able to create stems cells—known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells—from somatic cells, such as those found in our skin.

However, these iPS cells still retain ghosts of their cellular pasts, which makes them less effective as a therapeutic tool.

A new study, using a method called transient-naïve-treatment (TNT) mimics the normal reprogramming process in early embryonic development to essentially wipe a cell’s memory, making these cells more similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells both molecularly and functionally.

Stem cells are the raw materials of the human body—they’re the original cells from which almost all other cells with specialized functions originate. So, the ability to use these cells in therapeutic treatments is immensely important. So important, in fact, that over the past couple of decades, scientists have devised ways to reprogram non-reproductive cells, also known as somatic cells, into embryonic stem (ES) cells known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

This process is central to the field of regenerative medicine, which replaces diseased cells with healthy ones derived from these iPS cells. But there was just one problem—these reprogrammed cells retained ghosts of their past lives, making these treatments less effective than they otherwise could be.

“A persistent problem with the conventional reprograming process is that iPS cells can retain an epigenetic memory of their original somatic state, as well as other epigenetic abnormalities,” Ryan Lister, from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia, said in a press statement. “This can create functional differences between the iPS cells and the ES cells they’re supposed to imitate, and specialized cells subsequently derived from them, which limits their use.”