Scientists have created the most versatile stem cells to date, which could boost research into the reasons behind failed early pregnancies.
Unlike any other stem cell types that are current used in research, the so-called Expanded Potential Stem Cells (ESPCs) retain the features of very early embryonic cells, and can develop into any type of cell.
'This new method of producing stem cells could be enormously helpful for studying development, more efficiently generating functional human cells, and researching treatments for pregnancy problems such as pre-eclampsia and miscarriages,' said Dr Jian Yang of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and one of the first authors on the paper, published in Nature.
Embryonic stem cells (ES) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are commonly used to investigate developmental disorders and diseases. Yet ES cells are normally taken from blastocysts made of around 100 cells, and iPS cells can be created from adult cells. This means they are already set on certain developmental pathways and cannot become certain cell types.
In the study, researchers took cells from mouse embryos at much earlier stages of development, and treated them with a cocktail of chemicals that stopped them from developing any further. The ESPCs retained the genetic features of these very early embryonic cells.
'The earliest cell is like a blank piece of paper, in theory it should have the greatest development potential. This is the first time that stable stem cell lines of these earliest mouse cells have been possible, and we see that they do indeed keep the molecular features of the 4-8 cell embryo and can develop into any cell type,' said Dr Pentao Liu, principal investigator at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and lead author.
Importantly, these cells even retain the capacity to form the placental or yolk sac cells that are necessary to support pregnancy and embryonic development. As many pregnancies fail at an early stage due to problems with these tissues, it is hoped that ESPCs could be used to investigate the genetic causes behind early miscarriages.
The scientists also found that the chemical growth conditions used to induce ESPCs were able to reprogram existing mouse ES cells and iPS cells, taking them back to an earlier developmental state. The team says its methods could be used to produce similar stem cells from humans and other species where stem cell lines are not yet available.
'The research also has great implications for human regenerative medicine as stem cells with improved development potential open up new opportunities. Further research in this area is vital, so that we can properly explore the potential of these cells,' said co-author Professor Hiro Nakauchi of Stanford University.