These are the first reprogrammed immune cells and represent a milestone in modern medicine
A recent study has, for the first time, successfully "tamed" cells to form, once reprogrammed, early white blood cells; capable of maturing in cells of the immune system at the will of the researchers.
With this finding we can better understand what happens in the early stages of maturation and understand its mechanism, as well as develop cells engineered to fight autoimmune diseases or support immunotherapy against cancer. Although there is still a way to see therapies based on this technique working in hospitals, the perspectives are incredibly optimistic.
Immune cells in a petri dish
The cell reprogramming technique is one of the greatest advances in genetic engineering of our time. While the first techniques needed stem cells to be able to program their destination, the most advanced ones take already differentiated tissues, such as the skin, and return them to their primitive state with a suitable hormonal cocktail. After obtaining these cells, in a process called cell reprogramming, they can take whatever route we want.
This study has shown the right method of reprogramming skin cells for the first time and turning them into cells of the immune system early. These, until now, could only be obtained from the bone marrow, where this type of cell differentiates and matures.
To do this, the researchers, as they describe, have had to use together the most innovative techniques of genetic engineering and stem cell growth to differentiate those that present a specific signal: the manifestation of a RAG-1 protein, which directs differentiation in immune cells, to obtain and separate them.
Although said thus seems simple, as we said, it is the first time that it is achieved due to the difficulty of reprogramming, identifying and separating these cells; whose process occurs in immune maturation centers such as the spleen or the marrow. With this achievement, interesting doors are opened for treatments and research.
How immune cells are formed
Among the most interesting things in the study is knowledge about how early immune cells form, a process that still hides some important secrets. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to know the mechanism that underlies autoimmune diseases, such as leukemia or type 1 diabetes, for example.
It also allows us to study in the laboratory, from the beginning, the maturation process of these cells; which gives the opportunity to better understand the complex process and use it to our advantage, not only as treatments but also as support for other therapies.
As if that were not enough, having reproducible immune cells in the laboratory and being able to play with the technique to create them gives us the opportunity to make "cells à la carte" to fight various diseases. This is especially important in immune therapy for cancer, which is gaining strength and presents itself as one of the great protagonists of the future.
There are still years to go for therapy, and even then, it is a success
As the researchers indicate, it is still years before this technique can be used clinically, as part of a treatment. This is logical due to the painstaking process that any therapy must go through before going on the market, as well as being in its early stages. However, that does not mean that it does not pay off right now.
As we said, the use of this technique allows us to study, right now, the mechanisms of maturation and appearance of immune cells. This means that not only can it be a therapeutic tool, but it will also be important for the most basic research in cell biology. This will generate important and immediate knowledge.
This knowledge will allow us to advance in other disciplines, so the fact that the technique itself is in its infancy does not prevent this discovery from being an interesting milestone in the era of modern medicine.
Images | Unsplash, Murdoch Children's Research Institute