A discovery in stem cell research may mean big things for cancer patients in the future. Gary Van Zant, Ph.D., and a research team at the University of Kentucky published their findings in Nature Genetics, an international scientific journal.
The researchers genetically mapped a stem cell gene and its protein product, Laxetin, and building on that effort, carried the investigation all the way through to the identification of the gene itself. This particular gene is important because it helps regulate the number of adult stem cells in the body, particularly in bone marrow.
Now that it has been identified, researchers hope the gene, along with its protein product Latexin, can be used clinically, such as for ramping up the stem cell count in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation.
The researchers agreed that this very process is not only interesting, but important because of its usefulness in a wide variety of future genetics studies.
"We're thinking about cancer in a big way," Van Zant said. "This is a great example of translational research – from the most basic type of genetic research all the way to possible treatments for patients."
According to the researchers, one big obstacle chemotherapy patients face is stem cell loss after treatments. This limits the dosage amount and types of chemotherapy that can be given. But if Latexin were used to increase the stem cell count, patients would be able to receive increased doses of chemotherapy and be able to recover more quickly.
Another possible use for Latexin would be to help increase the number of stem cells available in umbilical cord blood, which also is used to transplant healthy stem cells in blood marrow transplants. Currently, stem cell transplants with cord blood can only be used in children because cord blood does not contain enough stem cells for an amount needed to be transplanted into an adult.
The only stem cell population that has been examined for effects of Latexin to date is in bone marrow. Van Zant said it is possible, even probable, that other stem cell populations in tissues such as the liver, skin, pancreas or brain may be similarly affected by Latexin.
Van Zant worked on the project for six years with Ying Liang, a former graduate student who is now a postdoctoral fellow at UK.
"We think these findings will have an effect on the broad understanding of the molecular mechanisms that are important to stem cell regulation, including how some stem cells turn cancerous," Van Zant said.
"The findings also will help scientists develop effective methods to modulate stem cell numbers and function for therapeutic uses, and also provide a better understanding of the age-related changes that occur in stem cells.”