Move over Gucci; researchers fashion designer stem cells

UW Medicine researchers recently lead a successful effort to create "designer" stem cells that might lead to advances in cancer and aging, they say.

In a paper published in the journal PNAS, the scientists showed for the first time that a computer-generated protein can be inserted into stem cells to change their epigenetic memory, whose role is to ensure that a cell’s DNA sequence remains intact as it divides.  

illustration of a colony of human embryonic stem cells, dressed up with computer-designed proteins to alter a stem cell’s fate.
computer-designed proteins to alter a stem cell’s fate

The novel protein alters this memory, said senior author Hannele Ruohola-Baker, associate director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Embryonic stems cells are the starter cells to all tissue types in the body.  Their capacity to develop to any cell type is controlled by their epigenetic memory.  Proteins do most of the work inside cells and are required for the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.

As cells divide to replace worn out cells, changes in the number or structure of chromosomes can lead to serious health conditions such as cancer. Researchers showed how a computer-generated protein that inhibits chromosomal memory can be put into an embryonic stem cell and be turned on when needed.

“This process will help us understand what is going on in cancer and aging,” said co-author David Baker. He is a biochemist who leads the UW Institute for Protein Design, where the novel proteins were designed by graduate student James Moody.

Shiri Levy, a post-doctoral fellow at ISCRM, said the study gives researchers a great launching point for therapeutics.“This could change the fate of stem cells that we would like to use in regenerative medicine,” she said.

Collaborators also represented the UW School of Medicine departments of molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of Toronto, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Seattle and Boston.

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Tags:cell biologystem cellsInstitute for Stem Cell and Regenerative MedicineInstitute for Protein Design

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