Genetic Brake Key to Stem Cell Fate

Researchers at UC, Santa Barbara, have mapped the role of a genetic signal that puts the breaks on the ability of stem cells to self renew. The finding could eventually shed light on self-renewal that has run amuck as in cancer, and can immediately be put to use in managing the balancing act between self-renewal and differentiation—the process through which stem cells mature into more specific cell types such as neurons or muscle.  Specifically, they found that a microRNA, a single-stranded RNA whose function is to decrease gene expression, lowers the activity of three key genes needed for embryonic stem cell self-renewal. Conversely, they found that when this microRNA, miR-145, is lost the stem cells are prevented from differentiating into more mature cells.

Cell: April 30, 2009
CIRM funding: Na Xu (T3-00009)

Related Information: Press release, University of California, Santa Barbara

Genetic molecule enables safer method for creating iPS cells

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have designed a safer technique for reprogramming adult cells into a state that resembles embryonic stem cells. This method takes advantage of genetic molecules called microRNAs, which regulate the activity of genes. The original 2007 method for creating reprogrammed cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, relied on inserting four genes, some potentially tumor-causing, into the DNA of an adult cell such as a skin cell. Since then, researchers have whittled the number of genes down to two, and in one case generated iPS cells with only chemicals. However, the process is often inefficient. In this study, the researchers substituted one of the four genes with a microRNA molecule and obtained iPS cells at high efficiency. The researchers suggest microRNAs could replace other genes or improve the efficiency of chemical means of creating iPS cells. In addition, understanding how microRNAs function in reprogramming could lead to new therapeutic strategies for blocking reprogramming in cancer stem cells.

Nature Biotechnology, April 12, 2009
CIRM funding: Robert Blelloch (RS1-00161)

Related Information: Press release, University of California, San Francisco

Protein protects brain from damage, may prevent neurodegenerative diseases

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have found a protein that protects the brain from the kind of damage that can lead to Parkinson’s disease. This protein, called Nurr1, has a long history in Parkinson’s disease research. People who carry a mutation in the gene are prone to developing the disease. The new work explains how the protein prevents Parkinson’s disease and could also help researchers find ways of treating of preventing the disease. The protein was especially important in two types of cells that protect and support the brain’s neurons — called microglia and astrocytes. In these cells, Nurr1 works with other proteins to limit inflammation after an immune response. Without it, these support cells produced toxic by-products that damaged the nerves in a way that could lead to Parkinson’s disease or other neurodegenerative diseases.

Cell: April 3, 2009
CIRM funding: Beate Winner and Fred H. Gage (RC1-00115), Christian Carson (T3-00007), Leah Boyer (T1-00003)

Related Information: Press release, University of California, San Diego, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Gage bio