I remember my excitement one morning in the winter of 2006 when I peered through a microscope in my laboratory and saw a colony of cells that looked just like embryonic stem cells. They were clustered in a little heap, after dividing in a petri dish for almost three weeks. And they were glowing with the same colorful fluorescent markers scientists take as one sign of an embryonic cell’s “pluripotency”—its ability to give rise to any type of tissue in an organism’s body. But the cells I was looking at did not come from any embryo: they were regular adult mouse cells that had seemingly been rejuvenated by the addition of a simple cocktail of genes.
Could it really be so easy to roll back the internal clock of any mammalian cell and return it to an embryonic state? I was not the only one wondering at the time. Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto and his colleagues had just published a groundbreaking study in August 2006 that revealed their formula for creating what they called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from the skin cells of mice. Researchers had been struggling for years to understand and control the enormous potential of embryonic stem cells to produce customized tissues for use in medicine and research—as well as contending with political and ethical controversies over the use of embryos, scientific setbacks and false hopes generated by previous “breakthroughs” that did not pan out. So stem cell scientists were surprised and a little bit skeptical of the Japanese group’s results at first. But that morning in the lab, I could see firsthand the results of following Yamanaka’s recipe.