In Brief
  • Researchers have discovered that IL6, a molecule produced by tissue damage, plays a critical role in reverting cells back to their embryonic state during cellular reprogramming.
  • Scientists can now explore ways to use IL6 to enhance the efficiency of cellular reprogramming and harness our bodies' regenerative power to fight disease and aging.

An Important Molecule

Back in 2006, stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka figured out how to use a series of four genes (OCT4, SOX2, KLF4, and MYC, or OSKM) to reprogram adult cells into pluripotent cells. These “master” stem cells are the precursor to all types of cells and give the body the ability to heal itself using its own cells. Figuring out how to induce them in adult cells opened up innumerable new doors for the field of regenerative medicine.

However, Yamanaka’s reprogramming process came with several limitations. Not only did it have a low efficiency rate, some trials even showed the emergence of teratoma tumors, making the process unreliable for clinical use. Now, a new study published in Science takes this research one step further, providing new insight into how the reprogramming mechanism works and ways we could potentially harness it for practical usage.

Researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) have demonstrated that damage in the cells plays a critical role in reverting the cells back to their embryonic state. Study author Manuel Serrano and his colleagues noted that exposure to the OSKM genes causes damage to the cells. That damage causes the cells to secrete a molecule called interleukin-6 (IL6), and it’s this molecule that promotes the reprogramming into pluripotent cells.

Credit: Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO)
Credit: Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO)

The Power of Self-Healing

Cell reprogramming literally takes old cells and makes them new again, so figuring out how to take advantage of this ability of the body to heal itself could be the key to curing many diseases, including degenerative conditions related to aging. By furthering our understanding of how this process works, the researchers open doors for scientists to target ways to manipulate IL6 to enhance the efficiency of cellular reprogramming.

This promising field of medicine has spurred several other studies. The successful reprogramming of connective tissue into cardiac tissue could lead to a cure for heart failure. Fibroblast scar cells have been manipulated to become lining in blood vessels, and doctors have been able to restore a patient’s vision using skin cells that were converted into pluripotent cells and then into eye cells.

There’s a long way to go before we fully understand the wonders of cell reprogramming, but continued studies may soon give us the ability to fully harness the regenerative power of our own bodies.