The key to unlocking stem cell’s potential and blocking a deadly threat

A small slice of who you are - brain cells made from embryonic stem cells.

A small slice of who you are – brain cells made from embryonic stem cells.

Our bodies are amazingly complex systems. By some estimates there are more than 37 trillion cells in our bodies.  That’s trillion with a “t”. Each of those cells engages in some form of communication and signaling with other cells which makes our bodies one heck of a busy place to be.

Yet all this activity may owe much of its splendor and complexity to a relatively small number of starting materials. Key among those may be one protein which seems to act like a “master switch” and can determine if a cell changes and multiplies, or just stays the same.

Starting out

But let’s begin at the beginning. We all start out as a single fertilized egg that develops into embryonic stem cells, which in turn become adult stem cells, which then give rise to all the different cells and tissues and structures in our body – such as our bones and brains and blood.

But how do those cells know when to change, what to change into, and when to stop? Change too little and something is undeveloped. Change too much and you risk the kind of explosive uncontrolled multiplication of cells that you see in cancer.

So, clearly, knowing what controls those changes in stem cells, and learning how to use it, could have an enormous impact on our ability to use stem cells to treat a wide range of diseases.

What’s in a name, or a number

Now researchers at Mount Sinai have identified a single protein that appears to play a major role in this control process. The protein is called zinc finger protein 217 (ZFP217) and it controls the actions of genes that in turn control whether a cell changes into another kind of cell and how often it keeps dividing and multiplying.

The study is published in Cell Stem Cell  and there is some pretty complex science involved but ultimately what it boils down to is that ZFP217 has an impact on m6A (scientists really need to start coming up with more imaginative names) which is a protein that helps determine if a gene is turned on or off. If turned on the gene performs one function. If turned off it doesn’t.

By, in effect, blocking the action of m6A, ZFP217 is able to stop the process that would allow stem cells to differentiate, or change, into other cells and also ends their ability to keep renewing themselves.

But wait, there’s more!

One other important role that ZFP217 plays is in helping spur the growth of cancerous tumors. Too much of the protein allows these cells to multiply in an unlimited and uncontrolled fashion, typical of the kind of growth we see in tumors.

The study was done in mice but in a news release  the lead study author, Martin Walsh, PhD, talked about the possible significance of the findings for people:

“The hope is that ZFP217 could be used to maintain supplies of therapeutic stem cells. At the same time, as the human ZPF217 is associated with poor survival in a variety of cancers, understanding how this protein operates in physiological conditions may help to predict cancer risk, achieve earlier diagnosis and provide novel therapeutic approaches.”

Having a deeper understanding of what makes some stem cells multiply and change into other cells could enable researchers to better use stem cells to develop new approaches to treating some of the most intractable diseases of our time.

If that happens then ZFP217 might be a name to remember after all.

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