Scientists have identified a gene that is essential for embryonic stem cells to maintain their all-purpose, pluripotent state. Exploiting the finding may lead to a greater understanding of how cells acquire their specialized states and provide a strategy to efficiently reprogram mature cells back into the pluripotent state, an elusive step in stem cell research but one crucial to a range of potential clinical treatments.
The research was led by University of California, San Francisco scientists. It is being reported Wednesday, July 8, 2009, in the advanced online edition of the journal Nature, and will be published in the journal's print edition at the end of July.
Embryonic stem cells are suspended in an "open" state, uniquely poised to become any one of many types of specialized cells, as genetic instructions dictate. Directing the specialization of embryonic stem cells to cells needed by patients is an area of enormous promise in stem cell research. Reversing the natural process -- converting specialized cells back into the all-purpose stem cell stage is another great promise of stem cell research.
Reprogramming specialized cells from Parkinson's patients, for example, would allow scientists to study the mechanisms that cause neurons in the brain to develop the disease. It also could lead to treatments by directing the restored stem cells to produce healthy neurons to introduce into patients.
The new research, conducted on mouse embryo cells, revealed that a gene known as Chd1 loosens the packaging that normally protects DNA in the cell nucleus. This step, known as chromatin remodeling, allows the cell's protein-making machinery to gain access to the DNA and transform progenitor cells into specialized cells and tissue, such as neurons, muscle and bone.
A number of genes are known to trigger chromatin remodeling, allowing small sections of DNA to become accessible in order to make specific proteins. Chd1
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University of California - San Francisco