LA JOLLA, CA----With their potential to treat a wide range of diseases and uncover fundamental processes that lead to those diseases, embryonic stem (ES) cells hold great promise for biomedical science. A number of hurdles, both scientific and non-scientific, however, have precluded scientists from reaching the holy grail of using these special cells to treat heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
In a paper published June 13 in Nature, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies report discovering that ES cells cycle in and out of a "magical state" in the early stages of embryo development, during which a battery of genes essential for cell potency (the ability of a generic cell to differentiate, or develop, into a cell with specialized functions) is activated. This unique condition, called totipotency, gives ES cells their unique ability to turn into any cell type in the body, thus making them attractive therapeutic targets.
"These findings," says senior author Samuel L. Pfaff, a professor in Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory, "give new insight into the network of genes important to the developmental potential of cells. We've identified a mechanism that resets embryonic stem cells to a more youthful state, where they are more plastic and therefore potentially more useful in therapeutics against disease, injury and aging."
ES cells are like silly putty that can be induced, under the right circumstances, to become specialized cells-for example, skin cells or pancreatic cells-in the body. In the initial stages of development, when an embryo contains as few as five to eight cells, the stem cells are totipotent and can develop into any cell type. After three to five days, the embryo develops into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. At this stage, the stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can develop into almost any cell type. In order for cells to differentiate, specific genes within the cells
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