Japanese patient first to receive ‘reprogrammed’ stem cells from another person

In what experts are calling a major advance towards creating stem cell banks, a Japanese sexagenarian has become the first patient ever to receive cells derived from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells donated by someone else, the journal Nature first reported last Tuesday.

The breakthrough, which was detailed in a New England Journal of Medicine paper, involved an anonymous individual who donated skin cells that were reprogrammed into iPS cells, then turned into a type of retinal cell. Those converted cells were then transplanted onto the eye of the patient – a man who lives in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture and has age-related macular degeneration.

According to Nature, doctors are optimistic that the donated cells will halt the progression of the disease, one of the leading causes of blindness. Furthermore, it could lead to the increased use of donated iPS cells, which are created by reprogramming mature cells into an embryonic state, and the creation of stockpiles that make medical procedures involving stem cells easier to perform.

A team of surgeons led by Dr. Yasuo Kurimoto performed the procedure at Kobe City Medical Center General Hospital as part of an ongoing trial that is being conducted under the auspices of Japan’s health ministry. The study, which will enroll a total of five patients, was approved back on February 1, according to the journal’s David Cyranoski.

Research could lead to the development of an iPS cell bank

This isn’t the first time that Dr. Kurimoto’s team has performed a procedure that involved the conversion of skin cells into iPS cells, then into retinal cells. In September 2014, they had been involved in a similar procedure in which a Japanese woman, but in that case, the skin cells that were converted were her own and not provided by a donor.

As Cyranoski explained, iPS cells converted from donor cells are not a perfect genetic match, and could potentially contain genetic anomalies. However, Nobel Prize-winning stem cell expert Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University told Nature that banked iPS cells should be close enough of a match for them to be used in most types of surgical procedures.

If the proposed stem cell bank can become a reality, Engadget explained, it could drastically cut how long patients would need to wait to be treated, allowing doctors to have immediate access to iPS cells instead of having to wait months for them to be cultivated. However, the website noted that this would only benefit between 30 and 50 percent of the Japanese population.

The iPS cell bank, Nature noted, would seek to match donors and recipients based on a trio of genes that code for human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), which are proteins on the surface of cells that help trigger immune system reactions. Currently, the system has cell lines from just a single donor, but the doctors hope to have lines from five to 10 donors by next March.


Image credit: Thomas Deerinck, NCMIR/SPL