Study reveals 'switch' as key to stem cells


The promise of therapeutic stem cells as a strategy to introduce new cells into damaged tissue to treat disease and injury has long been balanced with the practical difficulties of doing so. A new study from researchers in cell biology presents a better understanding of how stem cells transform into other kinds of cells within the body:

A University of Georgia study published in the March 2 edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell, however, creates the first ever blueprint of how stem cells are wired to respond to the external signaling molecules to which they are constantly exposed. The finding, which reconciles years of conflicting results from labs across the world, gives scientists the ability to precisely control the development, or differentiation, of stem cells into specific cell types.

"We can use the information from this study as an instruction book to control the behavior of stem cells," said lead author Stephen Dalton, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Molecular Biology and professor of cellular biology in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We'll be able to allow them to differentiate into therapeutic cell types much more efficiently and in a far more controlled manner."

The previous paradigm held that individual signaling molecules acted alone to set off a linear chain of events that control the fate of cells. Dalton's study, on the other hand, reveals that a complex interplay of several molecules controls the "switch" that determines whether a stem cell stays in its undifferentiated state or goes on to become a specific cell type, such as a heart, brain or pancreatic cell.

As the release explains, this work is the result of years of creating and testing hypotheses. As is so often the case, it's difficult even to contemplate the painstaking nature of this research, as well the patience and diligence of Dalton and his team. Yet that is why research is among the core missions of the university - fostering that patience and perserverance, established as a core value that is re-affirmed again and again, becomes part of our identity and filters into everything the institution does.

Image: Stephen Dalton, University of Georgia professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Molecular Biology.