CSIR makes a breakthrough in biomedical stem cell technology

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

The CSIR’s Gene Expression and Biophysics Group, headed by Dr Musa Mhlanga, have generated the first induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in Africa. The ability to grow these stem cells, a complex skill found exclusively in a handful of institutions across the United States, Europe and Japan, has revolutionized the way that researchers are able to investigate and understand diseases in order to find cures. It also holds enormous promise in what is known as “regenerative medicine:” growing new tissues to replace diseased tissue in sick individuals. With the advances made by the laboratory, Africa is now set to benefit from this new and powerful technology.

At the CSIR in Pretoria, Dr Janine Scholefield, one of the key researchers involved in generating iPSCs has recorded video footage of rhythmically beating cells through a microscope. The beating pattern is distinctive, easily recognisable as heart muscle cells. These cells, however, didn’t come from a heart, but instead were transformed into heart cells, from skin cells taken from an adult. This is the basis of iPSC technology, which induces adult cells (like skin cells) to revert back into stem cells, which are cells at the earliest stage of life. These early stem cells can then be programmed to become any type of adult cell, such as skin, heart, brain and blood cells.

The medical possibilities of iPSCs are extremely exciting: Growing new tissue to be transplanted into people who are ill, such as restoring sight by replacing defective tissue in the eye; transplanting new heart muscle cells into people with heart disease; giving people with anaemia new healthy blood cells; even harnessing brain cells to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Another powerful way in which to harness this technology is to create what is known as ‘disease in a dish’ models – growing stem cells from sick patients into diseased tissue. Since stem cells can be made from a patient’s own cells, the cells contain the exact same genetic characteristics as the patient they were taken from, meaning that this tissue will be “sick” in the same way that the patient is.

Dr. Scholefield has collaborations that include Prof. Susan Kidson at the Univ. of Cape Town Medical School to develop such models. This allows for the testing of possible cures, or understanding the disease, without having to subject a patient to invasive surgery or untested trial medication. Part of the novelty of this technology lies in the fact that stem cells can be made from almost any individual with almost any disease, simply by taking a skin sample from that person. Another benefit of using iPSCs is that they bypass the ethical controversy surrounding classical stem cells, which must be taken from embryos.

The difficulty in creating these cells and using them to understanding and curing disease lies in the required combination of technical skills and proficiency across many biological and molecular disciplines. Dr Scholefield spent three years at Oxford University on a prestigious Oxford Nuffield Medical Fellowship, working with many international experts to perfect the technique of creating iPSCs. She now teams up with scientists at the CSIR Biosciences headed by Dr. Joe Molete who bring together expertise from various fields in the Emerging Health Technologies research area, led by Dr. Makobetsa Khati, in order to best apply this knowledge in an African context.

According to Dr Mhlanga, “Cutting-edge medical research is not useful to Africans if knowledge is being created and applied only in the developed world. Given the high disease burden in Africa, our aim is to become creators of knowledge, as well as innovators and expert practitioners of the newest and best technologies.”

Dr. Mhlanga and members of CSIR Biosciences are especially thankful for the long term vision and support of the Department of Science and Technology’s Emerging Research Area who have generously supported this work.