Sangeeta Bhatia, MIT professor of health sciences and technology and electrical engineering and computer science
Monday, January 30, 2012
By Lori Valigra
Researchers at MIT and their colleagues said they have devised a way to produce liver-like cells from stem cells, a key step in studying why people respond differently to Hepatitis C.
An infectious disease that can cause inflammation and organ failure, Hepatitis C has different effects on different people, but no one is sure why, the researchers said in a press release from MIT. Some people are very susceptible to the infection, while others are resistant.
The researchers said that by studying liver cells from different people in the lab, they may determine how genetic differences produce these varying responses. However, liver cells are hard to get and very difficult to grow in a lab dish because they tend to lose their normal structure and function when removed from the body.
The researchers, from MIT, Rockefeller University and the Medical College of Wisconsin, have come up with a way to produce liver-like cells from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from body tissues rather than embryos. Those liver-like cells can then be infected with Hepatitis C and help scientists study the varying responses to the infection.
The scientists claim this is the first time an infection has been made in cells derived from iPSCs. Their new technique is described in the Jan. 30 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The development, they said, may also eventually enable personalized medicine, in which doctors could test the effect of different drugs on tissues derived from the patient being treated and then customize therapy for that patient.
The new study is a collaboration between Sangeeta Bhatia, professor of health sciences and technology and electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; Charles Rice, professor of virology at Rockefeller; and Stephen Duncan, professor of human and molecular genetics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
The iPSCs are derived from normal body cells, often skin cells. By turning on certain genes in those cells, the scientists can revert them to an immature state that is identical to embryonic stem cells, which can turn into any cell type. Once the cells become pluripotent, they can be directed to become liver-like cells by turning on genes that control liver development.
The researchers’ goal is to take cells from patients who have unusual reactions to hepatitis C infection, transform them into liver cells and study their genetics to see why people respond as they do. “Hepatitis C virus causes an unusually robust infection in some people, while others are very good at clearing it. It’s not yet known why those differences exist,” Bhatia said in a statement.
Bhatia is a 2009 Mass High Tech Women to Watch honoree.