Friday, June 28, 2013

Guest blogger Alan Trounson — June’s stem cell research highlights

Each month CIRM President Alan Trounson gives his perspective on recently published papers he thinks will be valuable in moving the field of stem cell research forward. This month’s report, along with an archive of past reports, is available on the CIRM website.

My report this month opens with a fascinating paper that finally provided definitive proof that adult human brains can generate new neurons, at least in the section of the brain dedicated to learning and memory. It also discusses a significant step toward creating universal donor cells that would not be rejected after transplantation, but this end goal will clearly require much more work.

The one paper in this month’s report that I want to highlight here is a tour-de-force showing the power of well-funded large international collaborations producing massive quantities of data. The paper in the May 23 Cell listed 42 authors who worked in 11 institutions in four countries. This would not be unusual for a paper in a physics journal, but is a phenomenon that has only recently started appearing in biology journals.

The members of the team, which included many of the leaders in stem cell science, were trying to understand how genes get turned on or turned off in early embryo development and how those gene switches change in later stages of embryo development. This study of the activation, enhancement, or suppression of specific genes is the relatively new field called epigenetics. It looks at all the molecular components on chromosomes that surround the actual genes, and influence the genes’ activity. Much of the current project was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Epigenome Roadmap Project.

They looked at two types of cells that appear very early in the embryo and two types of cells that appear at later stages. They did indeed find significant differences in which genes were active and in the configuration of the epigenetic marks—those switches. But to do that they used elaborate high throughput technology to measure the expression of over 19,000 genes. They then looked at nearly 104,000 epigenetic marks. This provides valuable new understanding of normal embryonic development now, and could point to ways to enhance the creation of specific cell types from ESCs in the future.

This project clearly shows the power of collaboration within institutions, across institutions and across state and national borders. This is why CIRM has agreements with 15 international funding agencies and six state or foundation funding agencies in the U.S. You can see that list here.

My full report is available online, along with links to my reports from previous months.


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