Scientists have discovered a key protein that kicks off the natural process that differentiates stem cells into any cell of the body. They hope the discovery will help development of therapies for degenerative diseases.

The team, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, describe their findings in the 7 February issue of Cell Reports.

Senior author Sally Lowell, who leads the Embryonic Stem Cell Differentiation group at the Centre, says in a statement that their finding “gives us better insight into the crucially important first step stem cells take to differentiate into other cell types.”

“Understanding how and when this happens could help to improve the way in which we are able to control this process,” she adds.

In degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, specialized cells become useless or die off.

Stem cells are cells that have not yet become specialized, they have the potential to become any cell of the body. One goal of stem cell research is to find ways of using stem cells to create new cells to replace those wasted in degenerative diseases.

However, one area that is not well understood is the events surrounding the point when the stem cells begin to differentiate into specialized cells.

The knowledge gained in this new study could help scientists improve techniques for causing stem cells to differentiate into target cells in the lab. Such a process would be useful for drug testing and developing new therapies.

For their study, the team worked with embryonic stem cells in mice.

They discovered the role of Tcf15 by examining how some stem cells are naturally prevented from differentiating into specialized cells.

They found two sets of protein were involved in the differentiation process: one set binds to the other set, and when this happens, the process is blocked.

They then screened the blocked proteins to discover which ones would enable stem cells to differentiate.

As well as discovering how Tcf15 plays a key role in triggering stem cell differentiation, the team also developed a way to show its presence in the cells.

Funds from the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council financed the study.

Earlier this year, researchers in Japan revealed for the first time how it may be possible to make cancer-specific immune system cells from stem cells.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD