Jack Parent, M.D. , Professor, Department of Neurology and Pharmacology, University of Michigan Medical School
One of the most interesting and powerful new techniques in biology is the ability to reprogram a cell from one fate (e.g., skin) to another (e.g., heart). In practice, this involves inducing the skin cell to forget that it is skin, and to act like it is an early embryonic stem cell (called pluripotent stem cell) that has the potential to become any type of cell in the body. Once this is accomplished, the next step is to use developmental signals to take this pluripotent cell and induce it to take on a new identity, such as that of heart cell. One major advantage of this type of work is that it is possible to model diseases that were previously impossible to study. This is an image of skin cells that have been reprogrammed into heart cells; the striped appearance of the cells is very characteristic of normal heart cells. They can even connect together to beat in the culture dish. The purpose of this experiment was to be able to study how a specific gene mutation found in a person alters heart cell function. Here, a biopsy of the patient's skin could be used to study the patient's heart function in the laboratory in the hopes of better understanding the disease and finding a cure.