Breakthrough in stem cell technology a first in Africa

Could hold the key to finding cures for some of Africa’s most prevalent diseases

A team of researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the first in Africa to establish groundbreaking biomedical stem cell technology, which could hold the key to finding cures for some of Africa’s most prevalent diseases.

The CSIR Department of Biological Sciences’ Gene Expression and Biophysics Group, led by Dr Musa Mhlanga, success- fully generated the first induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in Africa, in December last year.

The iPS cell technology involves inducing adult cells (like skin cells) to revert back to stem cells that can differentiate into specialised cell types. This means that the early stem cells can be programmed to become any type of adult cell, such as skin, heart, brain and blood cells.

Dr Janine Scholefield, one of the key researchers involved in generating iPS cells at the CSIR, was the first biologist in South Africa to record video footage of cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells, generated from adult skin cells.

Scholefield was recently recruited to join Mhlanga’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow, and started with the experimental protocol at the end of October. By early December, the team had generated iPS cell lines, each line indicating a single genetic background. “It was remarkable and completely took my breath away,” says Scholefield, describing the moment she saw evidence of the first cardiomyocytes.

She had been searching for other stem cells, which have a very distinct flat disc- like structure. The cell colony she found, however, was folded up and three-dimen- sional – and then it started beating. “It was apparent as soon as I saw it. You know you’ve done it right when you can see the beating,” she says, explaining that rhythmically beating cells is one of the characteristics of making a heart cell lineage.

Still, Scholefield was incredulous, and called in lab partners to verify what she was seeing. The team was able to keep the iPS cells going for two to three weeks – which she says is a significant amount of time – before the surrounding cells started dying.

The CSIR’s breakthrough is especially significant because it provides an alternative to the ever-controversial issue of embryonic stem cell derivation, the process whereby stem cells – cells present at the earliest stage of life – are generated using discarded in vitro fertilisation (IVF) fertilised eggs.

“We have to be aware, as scientists, that there are a number of people who are uncomfortable with that kind of work,” says Scholefield. “This technology, however, circumvents these issues altogether.”

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via Engineering News – Samantha Moolman

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