Rewinding development: a step forward for stem cell research
Scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center, DanStem, at the University of Copenhagen have discovered that they can make embryonic stem cells regress to a stage of development where they are able to make placenta cells as well as the other fetal cells. This significant discovery, published in the journal Cell Reports today, has the potential to shed new light on placenta related disorders that can lead to problematic pregnancies and miscarriages.
Embryonic stem cells can make all kinds of adult cells in the human body such as muscle, blood or brain cells. However, these embryonic stem cells are created at a point when the embryo has already lost the ability to make extra-embryonic tissue such as placenta and yolk sac. Extra-embryonic tissues are formed at the very earliest stage of development right after fertilization and are essential for the growth of the embryo and its implantation in the womb.
A team of scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center, DanStem, at the University of Copenhagen have shown that it is possible to rewind the developmental state of embryonic stem cells. By maintaining mouse embryonic stem cells under certain conditions, they found that cells appear to regress and resemble extremely early embryo cells that can form any kind of cell including placenta and yolk sac cells.
“It was a very exciting moment when we tested the theory,” says Professor Josh Brickman from DanStem. “We found that not only can we make adult cells but also placenta, in fact we got precursors of placenta, yolk sac as well as embryo from just one cell.”
Sophie Morgani, PhD student at DanStem and first author of the paper, which was published in the scientific journal Cell Reports today adds: “This new discovery is crucial for the basic understanding of the nature of embryonic stem cells and could provide a way to model the development of the organism as a whole, rather than just the embryonic portion. In this way we may gain greater insight into conditions where extra-embryonic development is impaired, as in the case of miscarriages.”
LIF protein plays a crucial role
Brickman and colleagues grew their embryonic stem cells in a solution containing LIF, which is a protein known to somehow support embryonic stem cells but also for its role in implantation of the embryo into the uterus. As implantation is stimulated by the cells that will become the placenta, not the embryo, these roles appeared to be contradictory. The DanStem study resolved this contradiction by revealing that LIF helps maintain the cells in their regressed, early stage of development.
“In our study we have been able to see the full picture unifying LIF’s functions: What LIF really does, is to support the very early embryo state, where the cells can make both embryonic cells and placenta. This fits with LIFs’ role in supporting implantation,” Josh Brickman says.
The research has been conducted in collaboration with groups in the UK, USA and Japan and is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Denmark and the Medical Research Council, UK.
Professor Joshua Brickman
Tel: +45 5168 0438
DanStem Research Coordinator Johanne Keiding
Tel: +45 2056 0063
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Please credit: Sophie Morgani, University of Copenhagen.
About Stem Cells
Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.
Embryonic stem cells are grown from cells found in the embryo when it is just a few days old. In humans, mice and other mammals, the embryo is a ball of approximately 100 cells at this stage. It is known as a blastocyst and has two parts: 1. An outer layer of cells – trophoblast - which will form the placenta that supports the embryo as it grows inside the uterus. 2. An inner clump of cells - the inner cell mass - which is a ball of 10–20 cells. The cells of the inner cell mass are pluripotent: they can make every type of cell in the body. They will multiply and differentiate (develop into more specialized cells) extensively to make the many types of cells needed to form the entire animal.
Facts on DanStem
The Danish Stem Cell Center (DanStem) opened in the summer of 2011 and is the focal point for international basic, translational and early clinical stem cell research. Professor Joshua Brickman and his team came to DanStem from University of Edinburgh, Scotland in October 2011. Together with three other internationally recognised research groups – recruited from Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark – they constitute the core of the center. DanStem addresses basic questions about stem cells and developmental biology in order to develop new stem-cell based treatment methods for diabetes and cancer.