Scientists have had access to human embryonic stem cells for a decade. But precisely how this all-purpose cell gives rise to all other cells in the body remains a fundamental mystery of biology.
Now, an $8.9 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) will allow a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to embark on a five year quest to find the secrets of a stem cells' ability to morph into all of the cell types that make up the body.
"The basic theme of the grant award is pluripotency and reprogramming," explains stem cell pioneer, James Thomson, a UW professor and director of regenerative biology at the new Morgridge Institute for Research. Thomson will be one of the leaders of the new effort. "How do cells decide to exit a pluripotent state and become a certain cell type, and how, when reprogrammed, does a differentiated cell go back to a pluripotent state?"
James Thomson and his team at the University of Wisconsin developed a technique to isolate and grow stem cells derived from human blastocysts in 1998, receiving several important patents for doing so. Since the first successful derivations of human embryonic stem cells from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos, rapid progress has been made in the characterization and manipulation of undifferentiated Human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESCs) in the laboratory. However, the state of the art for working with hESCs is far from ideal and much remains to be learned about their molecular characteristics.
In November 2007, Thomson's team and Shinya Yamanaka's team at Kyoto University, independently reprogrammed human adult skin cells to function like pluripotent embryonic stem cells. The production of these Induced Pluripoten Stem Cells is what Thomson is speaking of when he refers to cell reprogramming.
"The Wisconsin team will conduct cutting-edge research to address some of the most fundamental questions about stem cells," notes Marion Zatz, who oversees stem cell grants at NIGMS. "The project promises to advance the field of stem cell research by revealing new information about the protein modifications necessary for gene expression during stem cell differentiation while developing innovative technologies for studying the basic properties of stem cells."
The new Wisconsin project involves an interdisciplinary team that brings together researchers from chemistry, the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the Genome Center of Wisconsin, the Morgridge Institute for Research, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
NIGMS launched its efforts to explore human embryonic stem cells in 2003 in an effort to focus research on certain understudied areas of stem cell biology. The agency awarded a total of $27 million this year for research at UGA, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Los Angeles.
Adapted from the University of Wisconsin announcement and other sources.