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Discovery of New Protein Aids Understanding of Embryonic Stem Cells

Writing separately, one team of scientists in Scotland and another in Japan report in the current issue of the medical journal "Cell" that they have moved the analysis of embryonic stem cells an important step forward with the discovery of a new protein component of the cells.

The new component appears to play a vital role in the ability of stem cells to develop the cells that are needed to meet the needs of various parts of the body – the brain, the heart, the lungs, or any other organ.

Previous researchers had already discovered four of what "Cell", in an editorial comment, calls “critical players” in defining the potency of embryonic stem cells. “However,” the editors added, “the concert cannot begin with these factors alone. There is room for new players in the orchestra.” The scientists on both teams have given this new element the distinctive name, “Nanog”, because of its significance in the ability of the stem cells to retain indefinitely their youthful potential to become any kind of cell that the body might need. The name is derived from a mythical land in Celtic legend called “Tir nan Og”, the residents of which remained forever young.

For people with Parkinson’s (PWPs) the significance of stem cells is the likelihood that a means can be found to enable them to develop into brain cells that could replace the cells killed or disabled by the disease.

In an article reporting the development, the "Washington Post" referred to the discovery as bringing “scientists nearer to a holy grail of biology: the ability to turn ordinary cells into those that possess all the biomedical potency of human embryonic stem cells, eliminating the need to destroy embryos to get them.”

Rick Weiss, the writer of the Post article, however, added a statement from a scientist leading one of the two teams describing the difficulties that lie ahead in the effort to understand stem cells. “We do not know at this moment how Nanog is regulated,” said Shinya Yamanaka, leader of the team at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.

The quality of stem cells to differentiate themselves and to form cells required in various organs of the body is known as pluripotency. It is this quality that gives stem cells the allure that attracts research aiming toward cures of a variety of diseases, including Parkinson’s.

“Until now, pluripotency and stem cells have been a black box, really,” Austin Smith, leader of the team at the University of Edinburgh, told the Post. “If we want to use these cells in the clinic someday, we have to understand how they are controlled. But there’s been at least one major piece missing even to begin to understand that, which was Nanog.”

Most of the work described in Cell and reported in the Post involved the version of Nanog that exists in mouse stem cells, where it was easiest to study the gene’s role. But some of it involved the human version of Nanog, which proved to be structurally similar to mouse Nanog.

Researchers quoted by the Post cautioned that the new work will not bring a quick end to the political controversy over human embryo research. The discovery of Nanog and its role, however, seem likely to stimulate further research into the mysteries of stem cells.

Source Date: Jun 06 2003