Stem cell therapies hold increasing promise as a cure for multiple diseases. But the massive potential of a healthy stem cell has a flip side, as faulty regulation of stem cells leads to a huge range of human diseases. Even before birth, mistakes made by the stem cells of the foetus are a major cause of congenital defects, and cancer is also caused by the body losing control of stem cell function. Guiding stem cells along the correct pathways and, where necessary, reversing their mistakes is the goal of everyone in this field. Now, Michael Levin (http://www.drmichaellevin.org/) and colleagues from Tufts University (http://www.tufts.edu/), Medford, MA, have identified a novel and readily modifiable signal by which an organism can control the behaviour of stem cell offspring. Their work is published in Disease Models & Mechanisms on October 19th, 2010, at http://dmm.biologists.org/.
Levin's laboratory works on an intriguing phenomenon: bioelectrical signalling. There is always a difference in voltage, called the transmembrane potential, between the inside and outside of all cells, and controlling exactly what this difference is turns out to be vitally important. Specialised protein checkpoints sited in a cell's outer membrane regulate ion flow in and out of the cell, producing voltage gradients. These, combined with more conventional protein-based signalling systems, can specify cell destiny.
Levin's team already knew from collaborative work with David Kaplan's lab, also at Tufts, that the properties of human stem cells growing in artificial culture could be drastically altered by changing their transmembrane potential. Now they have taken this work one important step further, by asking whether tampering with the transmembrane potential of one kind of cell can have a domino effect in a whole organism, altering the de
|Contact: Sarah Allan|
The Company of Biologists