Stem Cells

New research by cell biologists at the University of Toronto provides significant new insight; into the very first step stem cells go through to turn into the specialize cells that make up organs.The findings publish in Genes & Development implicate the ability of proteins; to hang around in cells their stability as a major factor in controlling a stem cell’s state; and in the decision to remain a stem cell or transform into a specialize cell.

Stem cells are regulate by a network of proteins which maintain their ability to become any type of cell; a property known as pluripotency. However, these proteins known as transcription factors produce from genes in an organism’s DNA; regulate the process by which cells decide whether or not to initiate development. The new findings highlight the role of KLF4; one of the transcription factors that gives stem cells their unique properties. But the discovery was serendipitous as the researchers initially set out to investigate how the KLF4 gene; is regulate during transcription, but soon turned their attention to the KLF4 protein instead.

“Many previous studies focus on the genes that are turn on; or off as stem cells are destine to make specific organs,” says lead author Navroop Dhaliwal, who recently completed a Ph.D. with Professor Jennifer Mitchell in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology; in the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T. “Our work exposes a situation earlier in the process where reducing gene expression by 90 % does not affect; the amount of protein made. However, it was a really surprising finding when we first saw the results.”

Ability of a stem cell

The researchers found KLF4 proteins made one day remaine functional 24 hours later; a particular surprise as transcription factors typically only last for two or three hours in a cell. When they look at how stem cells differentiate and exit the stem cell state; they found KLF4 becomes unstable during the process, and by preventing this breakdown the cells can’t differentiate.

“We discovered that the KLF4 protein is highly stable and locks cells in the stem cell state,” said Dhaliwal. “Breaking it down, however, releases stem cells to specialize and eventually become the different organs of the body.”Dhaliwal and her colleagues say the findings indicate that KLF4 protein destabilization is a critical step in the ability of a stem cell; to become any one of the hundreds of special cell types found in a mature organism.

Building new organs

“These findings have important implications for regenerative medicine as building new organs requires; a detail understanding of how stem cells exit their immature state,” says Dhaliwal, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “Knowing this, we can now develop more efficient ways to produce patient specific stem cells; and differentiate these cells to more mature cells, which will be the focus of my postdoctoral work.” Beyond its role in stem cells, KLF4 is also involve in numerous cancers.

The researchers suggest the mechanisms uncovered here may shed light on its role in the development of breast cancer; squamous cell carcinoma and gastrointestinal cancer. “The data we present highlight the importance of studying; but both transcriptional control and mechanisms that affect protein abundance,” says Mitchell. “These mechanisms are particularity timely to keep in mind as more and more work shifts to a focus; on gene expression using techniques like single cell RNA-sequencing, which would not have reveal the mechanisms we uncover.”