Stem Cell Discovery Furthers Research on Cell-Based Therapy and Cancer

By Jeffrey Norris    |   UCSF.edu | July 19, 2013

Stem Cell Discovery Furthers Research on Cell-Based Therapy and Cancer

Ophir Klein, MD, PhD

Stem-cell researchers at UC San Francisco have found a key role for a protein called BMI1 that may help scientists direct the development of tissues to replace damaged organs in the human body.

"Scientists have known that BMI1 is a central control switch within the adult stem cells of many tissues, including the brain, blood, lung and mammary gland," said Ophir Klein, MD, PhD, who directs the Craniofacial and Mesenchymal Biology (CMB) program and serves as chair of the Division of Craniofacial Anomalies at UCSF. "BMI1 also is a cancer-causing gene that becomes reactivated in cancer cells."
 
Klein’s research group now has shown that BMI1 plays another role in ensuring that the process of development unfolds normally.
 
The hallmarks of all stem cells are that they are immature, they keep dividing to replenish their numbers almost indefinitely, and they generate new specialized cells to function in the tissues in which they reside – a process called cell differentiation.
 
Pushed in one direction, the BMI1 switch enables normal stem cells to divide and renew their own numbers. Thrown in the other direction, it keeps cell proliferation in check. But now, Klein’s research team has shown that BMI1 also keeps this stock of stem cells from spinning off daughter cells that mature into the wrong type of specialized cell in the wrong place.
 
The new discovery suggests that manipulating BMI1, along with other regulatory molecules, might one day be among the steps included in molecular recipes to turn specialized cell development on and off to create new cell-based treatments for tissues lost to injury, disease or aging, Klein said.
 
The dual role of BMI1 also is intriguing to think about in pathological settings, such as cancer, Klein said. Growing evidence suggests that many cancers are driven by abnormally behaving adult stem cells or by cells that have abnormally acquired stem cell-like properties. If these cancerous cells could be made to become specialized cells rather than stem cells when they divide, it might slow tumor growth, some cancer researchers believe. Inactivating BMI1 in cancer stem cells might be one strategy, Klein suggested.
 
The study by Klein’s research team is published in the July issue of Nature Cell Biology, and was conducted on adult stem cells found in the large incisors of mice.
 

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