The HSCI iPS Core: An ongoing success

Shortly after Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, demonstrated in 2006 that adult cells could be reprogrammed back to a stem cell-like state, a group of Harvard investigators, realizing the potential value of this game-changing technology, met to discuss how HSCI might use and advance it.

The group created the HSCI iPS Core facility, which opened in the summer of 2008. The core’s original purpose was to serve the HSCI community by producing dependable induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)—adult cells that have been genetically altered to become stem cells using Yamanaka’s technique.

“It’s hard for people to imagine, but it took over a year before anyone could really reproduce Yamanaka’s work,” said iPS Core Co-director Chad Cowan, PhD. “The culture methods weren’t as advanced and the reprogramming methods weren’t as easy, but now it’s nearly routine.”

Through 2010, the core lived in a donated tissue culture room at Massachusetts General Hospital, where three staff members struggled, and succeeded, to perfect the iPS cell technology. The core soon grew by entering into scientific collaborations with researchers eager to use iPS cells.

Today, the core, located on the Harvard campus, can boast that it has the most experienced iPS cell team in the nation. In addition to making and distributing hundreds of iPS cell lines a year, the core offers customer training and new services, such as the addition or removal of mutations from iPS cells derived from patients to better understand genetic diseases.

“We stay ahead of the curve by working closely with research labs and companies to test new methods and products,” said iPS Core Head Laurence Daheron, PhD.

HSCI funding initially launched and supported the iPS Core, but with the introduction of a fee-for-service model in 2011, and more than half of all orders coming from outside of HSCI, the facility is very close to being completely self-sustaining.

“Since year four, it’s been a steady increase,”said Cowan, who is an HSCRB associate professor. “We now pay for 85 percent of ourselves, which—when we talk about cores—is remarkably good.”