HOUSTON A protein known as REST blocks the expression of a microRNA that prevents embryonic stem cells from reproducing themselves and causes them to differentiate into specific cell types, scientists at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center report in the journal Nature.
Researchers show RE1-silencing transcription factor (REST) plays a dual role in embryonic stem cells, said senior author Sadhan Majumder, Ph.D., professor in M. D. Andersons Department of Cancer Genetics. "It maintains self-renewal, or the cells ability to make more and more cells of its own type, and it maintains pluripotency, meaning that the cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the body."
The paper posted online March 23 in advance of publication grew from M. D. Anderson research on the proteins role in medulloblastoma an exceptionally aggressive pediatric brain cancer.
Embryonic stem cells are essentially blank slates. They have the unique ability to develop from identical, unspecialized cells and then differentiate into distinct types of cells with special functions. In the laboratory, scientists have been able to induce embryonic stem cells to develop into heart muscle cells or insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. The hope is that embryonic stem cells might one day be used to restore or replace failing cells in the human body and perhaps treat a wide range of diseases.
"Embryonic stem cells have a very high potential in medicine," Majumder said. "The critical thing is to learn the mechanisms that could be used to generate a lot of self-renewing embryonic stem cells and be able to differentiate them into various cell types." REST could play a key role in maintaining a steady supply of these cells and in preserving their differentiation capability.
In studies using mouse embryonic stem cells, the researchers found that REST disarms a specific microRNA called microRNA
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University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center