Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the Scripps Research Institute have found that a protein known to play an important role in maintaining mouse embryonic stem cells has a similarly crucial job in human embryonic stem cells. This protein, called Shp2, acts as a switch, telling the cells to either divide to make more of themselves – a process called self-renewal – or to mature into different cell types – called differentiation. Fine-tuning this balance between self-renewal and differentiation will be critical for developing new therapies based on embryonic stem cells. The cells need to self-renew in order to grow up enough cells to be therapeutically useful. Once researchers have sufficient cells, they need to switch the cells over to a state where they can mature into cell types such as nerves, retinal cells, or pancreatic islets that can be used to study or treat disease.
Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research have developed a new way of quickly maturing embryonic stem cells into neural cells. Other research groups have worked out lab conditions that encourage embryonic stem cells to mature into various types of nerve cells, but those methods were slow and resulted in early stage nerve cells that were more likely to cause tumors when transplanted into mice. This new method could speed work by researchers who are trying to develop therapies for diseases of the nervous system. As an additional benefit, this work showed that some previously overlooked genes are worth studying as potential regulators of embryonic stem cell maturation.