Since 2006, the cornerstone of many stem cell studies have been induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPSCs. Pluripotent stem cells are essentially immature cells that can differentiate into many different types of cells.

Pluripotent stem cells are key to regenerating organs and tissues, however their use was decked in controversy for many years because the main source of them was embryonic stem cells, creating ethical issues lampooned in popular culture like South Park.

However, in 2006, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka changed the game with a method that reprogrammed mature cells into a pluripotent form using four growth factors. Yamanaka earned the Nobel Prize for this advancement in 2012, however there have been lingering questions about the transition process and why only 1 out of 1000 cells that are treated successfully convert into an IPSC.

But a team of Stanford scientists might have unlocked these secrets thanks to a protein called NKX3-1.


While testing models of the induced pluripotent stem cell reprogramming process, they discovered that NKX3-1 was briefly expressed during the early stages of the process, but in cases where that expression was blocked, the reprogramming failed.

Not only did they discover that NKX3-1 could replace one of the Yamanaka growth factors entirely, but that its presence was necessary for the success of the reprogramming as a whole.

While the reasons behind the importance of NKX3-1 are still unknown, this discovery is a great step towards further understanding the cell reprogramming process that is essential to future stem cell research, as well as the use of IPSCs to regenerate organs and tissue.

“Our goal is to study all facets of the regulatory logic, or ‘grammar,’ that underlies cellular reprogramming to pluripotency,” legendary cell researcher and study senior author Helen Blau said in a press release. “Reprogramming completely changes a cell’s fate. We want to understand the mechanistic and signaling pathways that mediate such a remarkable change.”

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