Finding a cellular Neverland: How stem cells stay childlike

La Jolla, CA - Despite their celebrated "immortality," the capacity of embryonic stem (ES) cells for endless division has its limits. After a very extended childhood spent dividing in a culture dish, even stem cells tend to grow up and assume adult roles as workaday nerve, muscle, or blood cells, never to return to their youthful state.

How some ES cells succeed in recapturing lost cellular innocence and start anew once they begin maturing is described in a forthcoming study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by a team of scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The team, headed by professor Juan Carlos Ispiza Belmonte, Ph.D., of the Gene Expression Laboratory and including professor Fred Gage, Ph.D., of the Laboratory of Genetics, demonstrates how a DNA-binding protein called Nanog coaxes mouse ES cells trying to differentiate into muscle cells back into an immature state. Nanog is named for the legendary Celtic land Tir nan Og where people remained forever young

"Embryonic stem cells represent enormous hope for treating otherwise incurable diseases," says Belmonte. "But before we can design therapeutic strategies or introduce these cells into patients, we must learn how to differentiate them into specific cell types and how to tame their formidable proliferating ability," he explains.

Nanog is a critical factor required for what cell biologists call "stemness," which is defined by two qualities: the ability of ES cells to divide or "self-renew" and their plasticity in assuming the identity of almost any cell type, which is also known as "pluripotency."

In a study published earlier this year, the same Belmonte and Gage lab team demonstrated that a few ES cells in a culture dish tended to lose stemness and evolve into muscle cell precursors, most likely goaded by a muscle differentiation factor known as BMP. But when those maturing cells were forced to produce Nanog, they re

Contact: Gina Kirchweger
858-453-4100 x1340
Salk Institute

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