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UNMC Research Team Makes Major Breakthrough in Stem Cell Research

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A University of Nebraska Medical Center research team led by Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, has reprogrammed regular body cells to resemble embryonic stem cells without the use of potentially harmful foreign genetic material.

The research, published in STEM CELLS, suggests that cells taken from a patient’s eye can be “reprogrammed” to replace or restore cells lost to degenerative diseases.

The research is the first proof in principle that somatic, or body cells, can be transformed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) simply through the influence of the microenvironment in which the sampled cells are cultured. Previously, genetic materials were introduced into somatic cells to reprogram them to become stem cells.

“Our findings provide evidence for an emerging view that somatic cells may be reprogrammed safely and simply by defined chemicals and other factors, which may facilitate their clinical use,” Dr. Ahmad said. “The next step is to know how robust the reprogramming is and what existed within the microenvironment to cause it.”

Dr. Ahmad said his findings wouldn’t have been possible without embryonic stem cell research.

“It must be emphasized that this development is directly related to embryonic stem cell research and the knowledge we have acquired from it,” he said. “We need to know how embryonic stem cells induced adult stem cells to function like themselves, and we can’t know this if we don’t continue with embryonic stem cell research.”

The team sampled progenitor eye cells, which regenerate the eye’s cornea, from laboratory rats. The cells were reprogrammed to resemble stem cells, and they acquired the properties necessary to replace or restore cell types that degenerate in Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and liver disease.

This technique may allow ‘autologous cell transplantation,’ where the donor of the cells also is the recipient. This is preferable to using cells from another person, which may cause the patient’s immune system to reject the transplanted cells.

Dr. Ahmad’s research was supported by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

As the state’s only academic health science center, UNMC is on the leading edge of health care. Breakthroughs are possible because hard-working researchers, educators and clinicians are resolved to work together to fuel discovery. In 2009, UNMC’s extramural research support topped $100 million for the first time, resulting in the creation of 3,600 jobs in Nebraska.

UNMC’s academic excellence is shown through its award-winning programs, and its educational programs are responsible for training more health professionals practicing in Nebraska than any other institution. Through its commitment to education, research, patient care and outreach, UNMC and its hospital partner, The Nebraska Medical Center, have established themselves as one of the country's leading health care centers. UNMC's physician practice group, UNMC Physicians, includes 550 physicians in 50 specialties and subspecialties who practice primarily in The Nebraska Medical Center.