Ruling the fate of a cellular blank slate

Stem cells make identical copies of themselves and can differentiate into many of the myriad cell types that form the body’s tissues and organs. To maximize these cells’ therapeutic versatility, they must be maintained in an undifferentiated state.

Some researchers have suggested that oxygen levels are low within the stem cell niche—the microenvironment within tissues that determines whether stem cells regenerate or differentiate. Seeking a method to preserve stem cells in their blank slate form, Zhong Yun, Ph.D., assistant professor of therapeutic radiology, and colleagues took a cue from nature, mimicking those low-oxygen conditions for cells in the lab.

As reported in the October 13 issue of The Journal of Biological Chemistry, under these conditions stem cell-like fat precursor cells remained in an undifferentiated state. And when the team upped the oxygen level, the precursor cells could again be converted into fat cells.

“Once we know how the microenvironment regulates the functions of stem and progenitor cells,” says Yun, “we can potentially protect them from premature differentiation or find ways to mobilize these cells for tissue repair and regeneration.”


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