"We found molecules that can direct the embryonic stem cells to [become] neurons," says Sheng Ding, who recently completed his Ph.D. work at TSRI and is becoming an assistant professor in the chemistry department. Ding is the lead author on the study, which is described in an upcoming issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"This is an important step in our efforts to understand how to modulate stem cell proliferation and fate," says Peter Schultz, Ph.D., TSRI professor of chemistry and Scripps Family Chair of TSRI's Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology.
The Promise of Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells have huge potential in medicine because they have the ability to differentiate into many different cell types--potentially providing doctors with the ability to regenerate cells that have been permanently lost by a patient.
For instance, the damage of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, in which dopaminergic neurons in the brain are lost, may be ameliorated by regenerating neurons. Another example is Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition in which pancreatic islet cells are destroyed by the body's immune system. Because stem cells have the power to differentiate into islet cells, stem cell therapy could potentially cure this chronic condition.
However bright this promise, many barriers must be overcome before stem cells can be used in medicine. Scientists have yet to understand the natural signaling mechanisms that control stem cell fate and to develop ways to manipulate these controls.
"We still have much to learn about how to direct stem cells to specific lineages," says Ding.