Technological advances have enabled stem cells to be successfully used to treat a wide range of medical conditions and diseases, from posing a low cost and relatively low risk alternative to traditional knee replacements to providing another choice to chemotherapy for patients with blood cancers to offering hope to people with a wide range of genetic disorders. However, scientists believe that there are even more areas in which stem cells could be a breakthrough option, including treating muscular disorders. One recent discovery potentially paves the way for this, possibly answering previously unanswered questions about stem cells and their development process.
The Latest News: Discovering the Elusive “Brake”
In their earliest stages, embryonic stem cells have universal potential or pluripotency. What does this mean? It means that these cells can develop into any type of cell within the human body. For example, they may become cells in the central nervous system or they could develop and become part of a person’s gastrointestinal tract, or they could become heart cells. This unlimited and universal potential is exciting for scientists and doctors; it offers a picture of what could be possible with the right technological advances. In fact, many scientists believe that if they are able to discover what gives these cells this impressive pluripotency potential that they will be able to harness this to encourage stem cells to develop into the type of cells that they need and these cells can then treat degenerative conditions and other medical problems.
Stem Cells and Their Potential
The question has always been: How? How can scientists replicate this potential in a meaningful way? And, how will this potential be applicable for humans and the health challenges that they may be experiencing?
It is important to remember that stem cells only have this pluripotent potential before they begin to differentiate. Once development and differentiation starts, these cells go down the pathway of becoming a particularly type of cell. Once the cells start down this pathway, the process cannot be reversed. Therefore, scientists are interested in focusing on what can be done to stop this differentiation; and, this requires finding the cellular “braking” system or on-off switch for development and differentiation.
What Is the Braking System?
For years, scientists were puzzled by what stopped some embryonic stem cells from developing and differentiating, allowing them to remain pluripotent. A recent discovery by a team at the Salk Institute shed some light on this fascinating question. These scientists found a complex, labelled GBAF, that seems to be the key to the braking mechanism, allowing cells to remain undifferentiated (at least in a laboratory setting).
Scientists have understood for years that differentiation is guided by chromatin remodelers. These remodelers, which are located in human cells, either silence or activate a variety of genes, allowing them to develop into particular types of cells in the human body. For example, cells that develop into central nervous system cells have different genes activated or silenced by the remodelers than the gut cells mentioned above. These chromatin remodelers successfully change the shape of the DNA, creating unique types of cells that look and behave differently from one another in the human body.
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The BRD9 Protein: A Breakthrough
The first step in the Salk team’s research was to look at BRD9, a unique protein, and suspected sub-unit of chromatin remodelers. The scientists began to explore BRD9 in more detail, looking to discover exactly what it did during the cellular differentiation process and if it was applicable to what they were attempting to do
Somewhat surprisingly, they discovered that BRD9 acts as a braking mechanism in laboratory cultures of embryonic stem cells. When added to a petri dish of stem cells, BRD9 prevented these cells from differentiating into different cells. In fact, it allowed the stem cells to maintain their pluripotency, which is so useful from a scientific and medical perspective.
Further research indicated that BRD9 was part of the GBAF complex, a previously unknown BAF complex and chromatin remodeler. However, significantly more research needs to be conducted into this newly discovered BAF complex. At the moment, scientists have significantly more questions than they have answers, which should not be surprising given how new and surprising this breakthrough was. Perhaps the number one question is: Can BRD9 change the process of how we cultivate stem cells and will it allow stem cell therapy to be extended to even more conditions and illnesses.
What Does This Tell Us?
These innovations tell us that stem cells are the potential key to successfully treating a variety of conditions and diseases that have not responded to more traditional treatments, offering hope to millions of people around the world. These stem cells can be used to treat everything from degenerative neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, to orthopedic problems and blood cancers, as well as a host of other problems for both pediatric and adult patients, such as muscle disorders. Many scientists would in fact argue that the opportunities offered by stem cells are limitless. And, these opportunities, even if not limitless, will only continue to expand as technology evolves.
The Desire To Crack The Code On Pluripotency
What differentiates early stage embryonic stem cells from any other type of cell is their pluripotency. This pluripotency means that the cells can evolve and develop into any type of cell in the human body. But, this pluripotency is not infinite; in fact, it is generally short-lived. Over time, these embryonic stem cells differentiate into a wide range of cells in the human body and once they differentiate, the process cannot be turned back. Scientists, including the Salk team, have focused on determining how pluripotency can be maintained for as long as possible in order to further expand treatment options.
What does this mean practically? It could mean a lot of different things, but significant research still remains to be done. If the braking mechanism has truly been discovered, scientists could harness the braking mechanism for a variety of purposes. For example, if a scientist is interested in cultivating and growing muscular cells to treat degenerative muscular conditions, then they may want to apply BRD9 to their culture to prevent the culture from differentiating until they are ready. They could then potentially guide these “braked” cells into muscle cells. And, these newly developed and differentiated muscular cells could then be used in the treatment process. However, again, it is important to caution that the Salk team’s research is still preliminary. Additional research still needs to be conducted into both chromatin remodelers and the “braking” mechanism more generally. This is simply the first step in a seemingly long road!
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