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Scientists Identify Synthetic Compound That Keeps Stem Cells Young

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A team of scientists from The Scripps Research Institute, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine has discovered a synthetic compound that can support growth and self-renewal of mouse embryonic stem cells, offering alternative to current growth conditions that may vary batch-to-batch and confuse experimental results.

The findings, reported in an issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should accelerate stem cell research and offer insights into cell biology that could aid in the development of treatments for diseases such as cancer and Parkinson's.

Embryonic stem cell research has been plagued by problems arising from undefined conditions for growing and differentiating stem cells.

Embryonic stem cell culture dishes are commonly coated with inactivated fibroblast cells known as "feeder cells."

These feeder cells offer embryonic stem cells a suitable attachment surface and also release largely uncharacterized nutrients into the culture medium that support stem cell growth in the undifferentiated state.

A variety of other factors are also added to promote stem cell growth and, most importantly, force the cells to maintain their pluripotency - their ability to become a variety of other final, specialized types of cells.

The end result is that such conventional culture conditions often suffer large variability, and make it difficult for scientists to tease out the impact of individual molecules on experimental results.

"Stem cell applications and studies have been hampered by using undefined culture conditions," says Sheng Ding, an assistant professor at Scripps Research who led the research.

Feeder cells can also introduce viral and other forms of contamination that may lead to rejection of stem cells by the human immune system, among other problems.

Ding and his colleagues set out to solve these culturing problems using high-throughput screening of a Scripps Research library of tens of thousands of synthetic small molecules in search of a compound that could eliminate the need for feeder cells and added factors.

This initial screening led to the discovery of a class of pyrimidines that improved cell growth.

Later, the team produced a library of analogs of this class that proved to include a single compound, dubbed "pluripotin," that supports self-renewal of mouse embryonic stem cells and maintains their pluripotency alone with only the addition of standard cell culture basal medium.

The Ding group has also shown that pluripotin improves the growth of human embryonic stem cells, although other factors are still required to maintain their pluripotency.

However, the team is already screening the Scripps Research library to identify a synthetic compound or compounds that will single-handedly maintain the human cells as pluripotin does for mouse cells.

Ongoing research with pluripotin has revealed that the compound controls the stem cells via a novel mechanism.

Pluripotin appears to simultaneously block the activity of the proteins RasGAP and ERK1, both of which have cell differentiation inducing activity.

"The mechanism of pluripotin suggests new strategies for maintaining and propagating stem cells," says Ding.

"Such a discovery of a single small molecule that operates through two different classes of targets to achieve a desired biological effect also has fundamental implications for drug discovery."

Work with pluripotin and compounds that may follow should improve researchers' ability to work effectively with stem cell lines, Ding says, and should facilitate the practical application of stem cell research in developing therapies.

The work also offers benefits beyond improved stem cell culture. "Pluripotin and other such molecules are likely to provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that control stem cell fate and ultimately may be useful for in vivo stem cell biology and therapy studies," says Ding.