Stem Cell Research: Open Chromosomes for Creating Pancreas Cells

By Quinn Fucile | Apr 04, 2015 12:13 PM EDT

Stem cells will be a big part of medicine in the future, offering a potential treatment for many diseases and injuries. Today stem cells are a key player in much of biomedical research. They offer a way to culture and experiment on cells that have various genetic conditions, potentially even leading to individualize treatments.

While scientists have gotten better at making them, they are still plenty of challenges ahead. Much of the promising research that could be developed into treatments, revolves around induced pluripotent stem cells. That involves taking a normal adult cell from the body and exposing it to a number of growth factors that revert it to an embryo like state. Once there it can grow and divide freely, and another sequence of growth factors is needed to differentiate this stem cell into the desired type.

Growth factors are proteins that bind to certain regions of DNA. Organisms produce them naturally to guide the development of cells and tissues. We pretty much figured out the growth factors necessary to produce almost any cell type. However, a few types have been difficult to produce, including cells from the liver, pancreas, and intestine.

New research from the University of California, San Diego, has identified the reason for these difficulties. (via EurekaAlert) Most of the time all of the DNA in a cells is tightly bundled up in a complex set of proteins. In order for a gene to be transcribed, or have any other interaction with proteins, that segment of the DNA needs to be in the open configuration. So they looked at embryonic stem cells and then mapped changes in chromosome structure as they developed into these difficult to obtain cell types.

What they found was a certain regions of the DNA, associated with pancreas or liver growth factors, opened over a long period of time. Induced stem cells grown outside the body also appeared to show this pattern of chromosome opening. Understanding this will hopefully lead to new strategies for more effectively creating these cell types.

The scientists are especially excited about the prospects for creating pancreatic cells from stem cells. If more effective methods are found it'd greatly accelerate research into conditions like type 1 diabetes. If the creation of stem cells, and pancreatic cells was effective enough, it might even lead to a cure for the disease. Not to mention the numerous other conditions that affect the liver and intestines. 

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