Collas insists that the transformation is possible. The hurdle lies not with the genes but with a cell’s epigenetic status, the subtle chemical modifications of DNA and its surrounding histone proteins. Epigenetic marks contribute to switching genes on and off, and stem cells rely on them heavily as they divide and mature. The Oslo team has found that low rates of DNA methylation, for instance, boost the chances of transforming fat stem cells from one cell type into another. "Look at a cell’s epigenetic profile," says Collas, "and you may be able to predict what that cell is likely to turn into."
These epigenetic signatures have grabbed everyone’s attention, acknowledges Ernest Arenas, a EuroSTELLS researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. "Scientists in the stem cell field are starting to realise that for cell manipulations to succeed they need to pay attention to their epigenetic marks. Cells can’t be pushed along to become a different cell type unless they start out with the right set of [epigenetic] conditions."
It is a complex area but one that is loaded with promise. "Everyone is talking about epigenetics," says Collas. If he has his way, people may soon be visiting plastic surgeons not just for cosmetic reasons, but for therapy.
Source:European Science Foundation