Unlocking the secrets of how stem cells decide what kind of cell they’re going to be

Laszlo Nagy, Ph.D., M.D.

Laszlo Nagy, Ph.D., M.D.: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

Before joining CIRM I thought OCT4 was a date on the calendar. But a new study says it may be a lot closer to a date with destiny, because this study says OCT4 helps determine what kinds of cell a stem cell will become.

Now, before we go any further I should explain for people who have as strong a science background as I do – namely none – that OCT4 is a transcription factor, this is a protein that helps regulate gene activity by turning certain genes on at certain points, and off at others.

The new study, by researches at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), found that OCT4 plays a critical role in priming genes that cause stem cells to differentiate or change into other kinds of cells.

Why is this important? Well, as we search for new ways of treating a wide variety of different diseases we need to find the most efficient and effective way of turning stem cells into the kind of cells we need to regenerate or replace damaged tissue. By understanding the mechanisms that determine how a stem cell differentiates, we can better understand what we need to do in the lab to generate the specific kinds of cells needed to replace those damaged by, say, heart disease or cancer.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Cell, shows how OCT4 works with other transcription factors, sometimes directing a cell to go in one direction, sometimes in another. For example, it collaborates with a vitamin A (aka retinoic acid) receptor (RAR) to convert a stem cell into a neuronal precursor, a kind of early stage brain cell. However, if OCT4 interacts with another transcription factor called beta-catenin then the stem cell goes in another regulatory direction altogether.

In an interview with PhysOrg News, senior author Laszlo Nagy said this finding could help develop more effective methods for producing specific cell types to be used in therapies:

“Our findings suggest a general principle for how the same differentiation signal induces distinct transitions in various types of cells. Whereas in stem cells, OCT4 recruits the RAR to neuronal genes, in bone marrow cells, another transcription factor would recruit RAR to genes for the granulocyte program. Which factors determine the effects of differentiation signals in bone marrow cells – and other cell types – remains to be determined.”

In a way it’s like programming all the different devices that are attached to your TV at home. If you hit a certain combination of buttons you get to one set of stations, hit another combination and you get to Netflix. Same basic set up, but completely different destinations.

“In a sense, we’ve found the code for stem cells that links the input—signals like vitamin A and Wnt—to the output—cell type. Now we plan to explore whether other transcription factors behave similarly to OCT4—that is, to find the code in more mature cell types.”

 

 

UCLA Scientists Find 3000 New Genes in “Junk DNA” of Immune Stem Cells

Genes and Junk

Do you remember learning about Junk DNA when you took Biology in high school? The term was used to described 98% of the human genome that doesn’t make up its approximately 22,000 genes. We used to think that Junk DNA didn’t serve a purpose, but that was before we discovered special elements called non-coding RNAs that call Junk DNA their home. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a step back.

Genes are sequences of DNA that contain the blueprints for the proteins that make your cells and organs function. Before a gene can become a protein, its transformed into a molecule called an RNA. RNAs contain messages that tell a cell’s machinery what types of protein to make and how many.

Not Junk After All

Now back to “Junk DNA”… scientists thought that because this mass of DNA sequences was never turned into protein, it served no purpose. It turns out that they couldn’t be farther from the facts.

There are actually sequences of DNA in our genomes that are blueprints for RNAs that never become proteins. Scientists call them “non-coding” RNAs, and they play very important roles in the body such as replicating DNA and regulating gene expression – deciding which genes are turned on and which are turned off.

Another important function that non-coding RNAs control is cell differentiation, or the maturation of immature cells into adult cells. Differentiation is a complicated process, and because non-coding RNAs are relatively new to the scientific world, we haven’t figured out their exact roles in the differentiation of stem cells into adult cells.

Understanding Immune Cell Development

In a study published this week in Nature Immunology, UCLA scientists reported the discovery of 3000 new genes that make a type of non-coding RNA called a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) that regulates the differentiation of stem cells into mature immune cells like B and T cells, which play a key role in fighting infection. This important study was funded in part by CIRM.

UCLA scientists David Casero and Gay Crooks with the sequencing machine that separated the genetic information within the bone marrow and thymus gland tissue stem cells. (Image credit: Mirabai Vogt-James, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

UCLA scientists David Casero and Gay Crooks with the sequencing machine used to identify the 3000 new genes. (Image credit: Mirabai Vogt-James, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

Using sequencing technology and bioinformatics, they mapped the RNA landscape (known as the transcriptome) of rare stem cells isolated from human bone marrow (hematopoietic stem cells) and the thymus (lymphoid progenitor cells). They identified over 9000 genes that produced lncRNAs that were important for moderating various stages of immune cell development. Of this number, over 3000 were genes whose lncRNAs hadn’t been found before.

First author, David Casero explained the importance of their discovery in a UCLA press release:

Our findings are exciting because they provide a huge and unique resource for the whole immunology community. We will now be able to drill down on the specific LncRNA genes that seem to be most important at each stage of immune cell development and understand how they function individually and together to control the process.

 

Co-senior author and UCLA professor Gay Crooks explained that the goal of their work was to gain a better understanding of how the immune system develops in order to battle serious diseases that affect it and open up avenues for generating better cell therapies.

If we can understand how the immune system is generated and maintained during life, we can find ways to improve production of immune cells for potential therapies after chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplant, or for patients with HIV and inherited immune deficiencies. In addition, by understanding the genes that control this process we can better understand how they are changed in cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.

 

Final Words

While this study focused on the role of lncRNAs in the development of the immune system and the differentiation of immune stem cells, the technology in this study can be used to understand the development of other systems and organs.

Scientists are already publishing papers on the role of lncRNAs in the differentiation of stem cells in the brain and heart, and further work in this field will undoubtedly uncover many new and important lncRNA genes. If the pace keeps up, the term “Junk DNA” will need to be retired to the junk yard.

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Image source www.biocomicals.com


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