David Ewing Duncan

A View from David Ewing Duncan

Company will reverse-engineer my cells

CDI has offered to bioengineer cells from my blood to create heart cells.

  • January 25, 2010

Be still my beating heart cell!

In this Technology Review aritcle, I describe a company called Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) that has offered to run a first-ever test on me that could marry cutting edge stem cell technologies with DNA testing.

Using technology developed by stem cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, CDI last month started selling heart cells that are derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem (IPS) cells.

IPS cells are made by extracting any cells from a person (say T-cells from the blood) and reverse-engineering them back to stem cell that can then be programmed to turn into any other cell in the body–in this case, heart cells that researchers will use to test for toxicity to old and new drugs and for basic research in heart cell biology.

CDI has offered to run an experiment on me in the coming weeks involving their process. They propose to draw cells from my blood, reverse them back to IPS cells, and then create heart cells that are a perfect genetic match to me. They will then test these heart cells by applying various drugs that show some cardio-toxic effects, to see how sensitive to them I am.

These drugs might include statin drugs used to lower cholesterol–to see if they show evidence of a rare side effect for these medications. I carry a genetic marker that makes me high risk to myopathy–a weakening of muscle tissue–a side effect that impacts about two percent of patients who take statins.

CDI scientists told me that they don’t know how these experiments will come out, and the company does not plan to offer this service publicly anytime soon. But one day this sort of test could become a powerful tool–combining genetic profiling and cell-toxicity screening using IPS cells–to determine adverse reactions to drugs in genetically high-risk individuals before they ever take a given drug.

This could be particularly useful to me since a range of high-tech tests I took for my recent book, Experimental Man, suggest that I have a high risk for heart attack linked in part to even a modestly high level of cholesterol. Normally, a physician might prescribe statins to me, which is safe for 98 percent of the population. But my genes suggest that I have a five-times risk factor of myopathy–a probability that indicates I am high risk, but does not mean I will definitely experience this side effect.

Possibly, the CDI test will provide an answer. I will report my results on this blog.

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