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New Technique Dissects Stem Cells' Picky Likes, Dislikes

Whether their goal is to create therapies or simply investigate how organisms develop, stem cell researchers face what is perhaps one of biological science's toughest assignments: keeping their tiny research subjects under control.

Stem cells have notoriously finicky tastes, and despite a decade of advances, researchers are still honing the conditions under which the cells will continue dividing indefinitely in culture or begin morphing into specific cell types.

University of Wisconsin-Madison research led by chemistry professor Laura Kiessling now offers these scientists a new tool. Writing in the May 11 online edition of ACS Chemical Biology, Kiessling and her colleagues describe a system that can quickly and systemically screen hundreds of individual molecules for their ability to influence stem cell fates.

Harvesting the scientific and therapeutic promise of stem cells hinges on establishing precise and reproducible conditions for growing them, says Kiessling. Although great strides have been made in this area, scientists are still searching for factors that will boost stem cell growth rates, for example, or cut the number of cells that spontaneously transform, or "differentiate," into unwanted cell types.

As a means to quickly identify specific molecules that might produce these and other effects, the technique could hasten efforts to develop stem cell therapies and attain new insights in developmental biology, says Kiessling. Moreover, her team's chemistry-based technique not only allows scientists to test molecules from nature, but synthetic ones, as well.

"One provocative possibility is that if you deliver non-natural signals to these cells maybe you can get a greater diversity of responses than if you just use biological signals," says Kiessling.

Inside living organisms, stem cells nestle within the "stem cell niche," a microenvironment in which they bump against the
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