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Mysteries of adult cell reprogramming unravelled

19 June 2006
Appeared in BioNews 363

UK and US researchers say they are close to identifying a 'cocktail' of protein that could convert adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells capable of growing into any type of body tissue. Scientists based at Edinburgh University have shown that a protein called 'Nanog' is key to this reprogramming process, while a team from Princeton University, New Jersey, has identified some of the proteins that work with Nanog. Both studies appear in the latest issue of Nature.

Following the cloning of Dolly the sheep, scientists have been searching for proteins involved in the 'reprogramming' of the genetic material of an adult cell, that help transform it into an embryonic state. Such research could eventually lead to an alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells (ES cells) in the search for new disease therapies. The Edinburgh team has now shown that a gene called Nanog - named after the mythical Celtic land of the ever-young, Tir nan Og - is the key to the reprogramming process.

The scientists first created mouse ES cells that produce four times the usual amount of Nanog protein. When they fused these cells with mouse nervous tissue cells, the hybrid cells transformed into ES cells 200 times more efficiently than normally happens in such fusion experiments. Team leader Austin Smith says that several other genes are probably involved, but that the identification of Nanog will hopefully speed up the search. The US study reported alongside the Nanog findings represents a significant step towards this goal, since the researchers have developed a new way to identify other reprogramming genes.

First, the team looked for mouse genes that are switched off when mouse ES cells transform into other types of cell. Then, they switched off each gene individually, in ES cells growing in the lab, to see whether the cells grew into other tissues. Their search resulted in the identification of Nanog, plus a few other genes, which make some of the proteins that work together to reprogramme an adult cell. Team leader Ihor Lemischka told Nature News that the challenge is now to identify the missing proteins involved in this process, work that the group has already started. 'Obviously that's where the field is really headed', he said, adding 'it's a terribly exciting time'.

A way around dilemmas of stem cells
San Francisco Chronicle |  15 June 2006
How stem cells can turn back the biological clock
The Guardian |  15 June 2006
Stem cell superpowers exposed
Nature News |  14 June 2006
23 April 2007 - by Heidi Nicholl 
Researchers have identified the gene which controls the critical self-renewal function of stem cells. Both adult and embryonic stem cells are able to repeatedly renew themselves, which allows them to be grown up in large numbers in the laboratory before being differentiated into specific tissue types. Although...
2 June 2003 - by BioNews 
Scientists from the Institute of Stem Cell Research (ISCR) in Edinburgh, Scotland and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, announced independently last week that they have discovered a 'master gene' in embryonic stem (ES) cells. They believe that the gene is responsible for the 'pluripotency' (a unique...
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