01 September 2014

Picking up the keys to pluripotence

Getting pluripotent stem cells will become easier

LifeSciencesToday based on MSU materials: Discovery may make it easier to develop life-saving stem cells

A group of scientists from the University of Michigan (Michigan State University, MSU) has identified a gene that could be the key to obtaining stem cells – cells potentially capable of saving millions of lives due to the property of differentiating into almost any cell in the body.

A gene known as ASF1A has been discovered by other scientists. However, it is at least one of the genes responsible for the mechanism of cell reprogramming – the process by which cells of one type turn into cells of another, which is the key to obtaining stem cells.

To establish that ASF1A, along with another gene, OCT4, and a soluble helper molecule, is responsible for reprogramming, scientists needed to analyze more than 5,000 genes of a human egg. The article Histone chaperone ASF1A is required for maintenance of pluripotency and cellular reprogramming is published in the journal Science.

"This could be a major breakthrough in how we imagine the development of stem cells," says Elena Gonzalez–Munoz, the first author of the paper. "Scientists are just beginning to comprehend how somatic cells of an adult organism, such as skin cells, can be reprogrammed into embryonic stem cells. Hopefully, this will be the way to a deeper understanding of how this mechanism works."

In 2006, Dr. Gonzalez-Munoz's group identified thousands of human egg genes. The researchers concluded that it was among them that they would be able to find the genes responsible for cellular reprogramming.

In 2007, a group of Japanese researchers found that stem cells can be created without the use of human eggs – by embedding four genes into the cell genome.

"This is important because iPSCs are obtained directly from adult tissue and can be genetically completely suitable for the patient," says Jose Cibelli, professor of animal science at MSU, a member of the research group.

As it was established, the ASF1A and OCT4 genes work in tandem with a ligand, a hormone-like substance GDF9, also produced in eggs, which facilitates the reprogramming process.

"We believe that ASF1A and GDF9 are two players among many others yet to be discovered that are part of the cell reprogramming process," says Kibelli.

"We hope that in the near future, given what we have learned now, we will be able to test a new hypothesis that will reveal many more secrets stored by the egg," he says. "Then we will be able to develop new and safer cell therapy strategies."

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