What a Difference Differentiation can Make: a Little Change can Reduce the Risk of Rejection

No one likes to be rejected. It hurts. But while rejection is something most of us experience at least a couple of times in our life, researchers at Stanford have found a way to reduce the risk of rejection, at least when it comes to one form of stem cells. Reporting in the latest issue of Nature Communications they have found that turning iPS or induced pluripotent stem cells into other, more specialized kinds of cells, can reduce the risk the immune system will attack them.

Our immune systems are things of beauty. They hunt out invaders like viruses and when they spot something that shouldn’t be there, they attack it. It’s a critical part of our body’s way of fighting off disease and staying healthy.

However, the immune system is not perfect. Researchers have known for some time that when you take skin from an individual and turn it into an iPS cell – one that is capable of turning into any other cell in the body – and then transplant that cell back into the same individual their immune system often attacks it. So far, the only individuals this has been done with are mice, but we assume the same would happen in people.

So Joseph Wu and his CIRM-funded Stanford team decided to see what would happen if they took those same iPS cells and, before transplanting them back into the individual they came from, turned them into a more specialized form of cell. The results were encouraging: the immune system didn’t wage an attack.

Dr. Joseph Wu, Stanford University School of Medicine

Dr. Joseph Wu, Stanford University School of Medicine



Researchers were not sure why the body would attack something that was created from its own tissue, but speculated that turning ordinary skin cells into iPS cells created a kind of cell that the immune system hadn’t seen before, or at least hadn’t seen since it since it was an embryo.

In the Stanford news release, Wu said this finding could be really important in helping avoid rejection in organ or other tissue transplants:

“Induced pluripotent stem cells have tremendous potential as a source for personalized cellular therapeutics for organ repair. This study shows that undifferentiated iPS cells are rejected by the immune system upon transplantation in the same recipient, but that fully differentiating these cells allows for acceptance and tolerance by the immune system without the need for immunosuppression.” 

The team first transplanted some iPS cells into genetically identical recipient mice. The transplants were rejected and within 42 days there were no signs that any cells had survived.

Then they took the same kind of iPS cell and differentiated, or ‘re-programmed,’ them so that they turned into endothelial cells, the kind found in the inner lining of blood vessels. Then they transplanted those cells into the mice. At the same time they took some of the mice’s own endothelial cells out, and transplanted them back into genetically identical mice to see how they would compare. Both sets of cells, the iPS-turned-into endothelial and the endothelial cells, survived for at least 63 days after transplantation.

When the researchers repeated the experiment and examined the areas where the cells had been transplanted, they found much greater signs of immune system activity in the mice that were given iPS cells compared to the mice who got iPS cells that had been turned into endothelial cells, and the mice that just got endothelial cells.

For Wu, the bottom line was simple:

“This study certainly makes us optimistic that differentiation — into any nonpluripotent cell type — will render iPS cells less recognizable to the immune system. We have more confidence that we can move toward clinical use of these cells in humans with less concern than we’ve previously had.” 

 We work closely with Joseph Wu and his team on a number of other different projects, most focusing on heart disease.

kevin mccormack