While the field of human embryonic stem cell research receives a tremendous amount of public attention, many scientists are also exploring the potential of adult stem cells for possible therapies. But this field raises other difficulties. Although adult stem cell research isnt fraught with the controversies that surround embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are extremely difficult to isolate and then to multiply in a lab dish. Now, as reported in the May 6 issue of the journal Cell, researchers in the lab of Whitehead Institute Member Rudolf Jaenisch have discovered a mechanism that might enable scientists to multiply adult stem cells quickly and efficiently.
"These findings provide us with a new way of looking at adult stem cells and for possibly exploiting their therapeutic potential," says Jaenisch, who also is a professor of biology at MIT. This research focuses on a gene called Oct4, a molecule that is known to be active in the early embryonic stage of an organism. Oct4s primary function is to keep an embryo in an immature state. It acts as a gatekeeper, preventing the cells in the embryo from differentiating into tissue-specific cells. While Oct4 is operating, all the cells in the embryo remain identical, but when Oct4 shuts off, the cells begin growing into, say, heart or liver tissue.
Konrad Hochedlinger, a post-doctoral researcher in Jaenischs lab, was experimenting with the Oct4 gene, curious to see what happens in laboratory mice when the gene is reactivated in adult tissue where it has long been dormant. Hochedlinger found that when he switched the gene on, the mice immediately formed tumors in the gut and in the skin where the gene was active. When he switched the gene off, the tumors subsided, demonstrating that the process is reversible.
David Cameron | EurekAlert!
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