Africa continues to face the burden of infectious and chronic diseases. Infectious diseases still account for at least 69 percent of deaths on the continent, but meanwhile, in both men and women, mortality rates from chronic diseases are now actually higher in sub Saharan Africa than in practically all other regions of the world
Worse, over the next 10 years, health experts expect Africa to experience the largest increase in death rates from respiratory diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Meanwhile, national investments in healthcare training and service delivery prioritize infectious and parasitic diseases, even as African health systems remain weak.
Amid these grim news, comes good tidings: For the first time, South African scientists have generated non-embryonic stem induced adult pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs from adult skin cells that can be prompted to grow into any type of cell in the body.
While the technology isn’t novel, developing the capacity to grow these stem cells in South Africa is important for researchers investigating diseases affecting Africans, said post-doctoral fellow Dr. Janine Scholefield of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which announced the development on March 20.
The CSIR — South Africa’s national scientific and technology research and development organization and one of the leading scientific research groups in the African continent — said it had replicated techniques devised by Japanese researchers in 2007.
In order to perfect the technique of creating iPSCs, Dr. Scholefield spent three years working with international experts at the United Kingdom’s Oxford University. She now forms part of a team of CSIR scientists with expertise in various emerging health technologies, who work to apply this knowledge in an African context.
Applying cutting-edge research in Africa
“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,” said Dr. Musa Mhlanga, head of CSIR’s gene expression and biophysics group. “Cutting-edge medical research isn’t useful to Africans if knowledge is being created and applied only in the developed world,” he pointed out.
Dr. Mhlanga’s group receives long-term financial support from South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology.
In a statement, the CSIR said: “The ability to grow these stem cells, a complex skill currently available at only a handful of institutions in the United States, Europe and Japan, has revolutionized the way that researchers are able to investigate and understand diseases.”
The induced stem cells “hold enormous promise in what is known as ‘regenerative medicine’ — growing new tissue to replace diseased tissue in sick individuals, it said. Now, “with the advances made at the CSIR, Africa is now set to benefit from this new and powerful technology,” it concluded.
Reverting adult cells to stem cells
The great thing about induced pluripotent stem cell technology is that stem cells can be made from almost any person with almost any disease, simply by taking a skin sample from that person.
“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.”
Dr. Scholefield had recorded video footage of rhythmically beating cells through a microscope. “The beating pattern is distinctive, and easily recognizable as heart muscle cells,” the CSIR said. “These cells, however, didn’t come from a heart, but were, instead, transformed into heart cells, from skin cells taken from an adult.
“The other critical thing is the cells (that will be grown) are an exact genetic match to the person who donated the skin cells, so we can circumvent the problem of tissue rejection,” Dr. Scholefield said.
Another plus of using iPSCs is that they circumvent ethical controversies surrounding human embryonic stem cells — hESCs — that must be taken from embryos that are later destroyed. Adult-generated stem cells are more acceptable to people who object to using stem cells from embryos, the CSIR noted.
Medical possibilities open
Stem cells have vast medical implications — including the possibility of growing new tissue for transplantation into people suffering from various diseases.
The CSIR said iPSCs could be used for:
• restoring sight by replacing defective tissue in the eye
• transplanting new heart muscle cells into people with serious heart diseases
• giving people with anemia new healthy blood cells
• harnessing brain cells to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s disease
At present, the only universally accepted and routinely practiced medical application of stem cells is bone marrow transplantation of cord-blood stem cells to treat leukemia, lymphoma, thalassemia and other blood-forming diseases.
“We are getting closer to using stem cells as part of routine medical practice, but are still a long way off from using these cells for degenerative diseases of the central nervous system,” said Dr. Michael Pepper, professor of immunology at South Africa’s University of Pretoria.
There were several hundred clinical trials using stem cells under way around the world, Dr. Pepper pointed out, but most were still at an early stage.
Studying diseases in lab models
Another way of employing stem cell technology is to create “disease-in-a-dish” models, by growing diseased tissue from the stem cells of sick patients.
In January, American scientists led by University of California San Diego neuroscientist Dr. Larry Goldstein stem cells to create an “Alzheimer’s-in-a-dish” lab model to simulate what goes wrong in diseased brain cells of people with the disease. The findings of the USCD team were published in the journal Nature.
A month after, scientists from New York’s University of Buffalo successfully applied a stem-cell engineering technique to create human brain cells that are an exact replica of neurons in one type of Parkinson’s disease.
The newly developed brain cells allow researchers to observe exactly how mutations in the parkin gene cause one type of the disease that affects one in 10 Parkinson’s patients, said lead researcher Dr. Jian Feng. His team’s research was published on Feb. 8 in the journal Nature Communications.
“Since stem cells can be made from a patient’s own cells, the cells contain the exact same genetic characteristics as the patient these were taken from, meaning that this tissue will be ‘sick’ in the same way as the patient,” the South African research organization also said.
Dr. Scholefield will be collaborating with Professor Susan Kidson at the University of Cape Town Medical School in developing her models, allowing for the testing of possible cures, or understanding the disease, without having to subject a patient to invasive surgery or untested trial medication.
“We can also develop models of disease in a Petri dish in the laboratory,” she said, explaining that this would enable researchers to investigate rare diseases without the need for human subjects.
CSIR, leading Africa’s research
The leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organizations in the African continent, the CSIR undertakes directed research and development for socio-economic growth.
Established by the South African parliament in 1945, the CSIR is found on its own campus Pretoria. Accounting for about 10 percent of the entire African R&D budget, it has a staff of about 3,000 technical and scientific researchers who work in multidisciplinary teams.
In 1999, the CSIR formed a strategic alliance with the University of Pretoria. Known as the Southern Education and Research Alliance (SERA), the alliance collaborates locally and internationally with universities, nongovernment groups, companies and multinational bodies in various research undertakings.
The CSIR’s main areas of research are:
• Synthetic Biology
• Defense, peace, safety and security
• Information and communications technology
• Laser technology
• Materials science and manufacturing
• Mobile intelligent autonomous systems
• Natural resources and the environment
• Space technology
• Built environment