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Rodent of the week: A clue to growing stem cells

July 10, 2009 |  1:51 pm

Rodent_of_the_weekEmbryonic stem cells are infantile structures that go on to develop into any of more than 200 different types of cells in the adult body. As such, researchers are deeply interested in using human embryonic stem cells in the lab to create tissues that can be used to treat disease. However, human embryonic stem cells are notoriously difficult to grow in the lab. But mouse embryonic stem cells thrive there.

New research suggests why mouse stem cells are so easy to grow, and that may lead to advances in growing embryonic stem cells from other animals.

The study, published this week in the journal Science Express, found that activation of what's called the TDH gene in mouse embryonic stem cells results in their ability to grow successfully. The study showed that the cultures scientists use for the embryonic mouse stem cells is important to keep the TDH gene actively expressed.

"Scientists added this and that until they got the right 'soup,' " Steven McKnight, the lead author of the study and chairman of biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said in a news release. "You would think the 'mouse soup' would then work for all species, but it doesn't. Researchers have been trying for 20 years to get the right formula for maintaining embryonic stem cells from other species. With few exceptions, however, they still haven't gotten it right."

Because of gene mutations, human embryonic stem cells do not produce the TDH enzyme that is crucial to the mouse cell growth. It may be possible to repair the mutated human TDH gene and replace it into human embryonic stem cells to trigger better growth.

"I don't know whether this will work or not -- it's highly speculative," McKnight said. "But if so, it would be profound."

-- Shari Roan

Photo courtesy of Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

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