Scientists have uncovered a vital link in the chain of events that gives stem cells their remarkable properties.
Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Cambridge have pinpointed the final step in a complex process that gives embryonic stem cells their unique ability to develop into any of the different types of cells in the body (from liver cells to skin cells). Their findings, published today in the journal Cell, have important implications for efforts to harness the power of stem cells for medical applications.
In the last few years, huge strides have been made in stem cell research. Scientists are now able to transform adult skin or brain cells into embryonic-like stem cells in the laboratory. Just like natural embryonic stem cells, these reprogrammed cells can make all the body's cell types. This extraordinary ability is known as pluripotency 'having several potential outcomes'. It is the basis for the hope that stem cells will one day help fight illnesses like diabetes, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.
Despite such exciting developments, scientists still have only a very basic understanding of how cells become pluripotent. Dr Jose Silva, who led the Cambridge research with his colleague Dr Jennifer Nichols, says: "Exactly how pluripotency comes about is a mystery. If we want to create efficient, safe and reliable ways of generating these cells for medical applications, we need to understand the process; our research provides additional clues as to how it occurs. "
The researchers, funded by public and charitable sources, studied how the rather poetically named protein Nanog helps give cells pluripotency. Nanog takes its name from the celtic phrase 'Tir Nan Og', or 'land of the ever young'. It was identified as a key player in pluripotency in 2003, but until now its exact biological role remained unclear.
Dr Silva says: "It was clear that Nanog was im
|Contact: Genevieve Maul|
University of Cambridge