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Stem cells and drug screening

12 Jul, 2010
Undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells growing in culture with fibroblasts.

Undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells growing in culture with fibroblasts.

The UK National Stem Cell Network annual science meeting opens today in Nottingham, and one of our funded researchers is giving a special lecture to mark the occasion.

At the Anne McLaran Memorial Lecture, Professor Fiona Watt of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, will present a new approach to screening for drugs that target stem cells.

The research, funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, was published recently in Nature Cell Biology. It demonstrates how single stem cells can be encouraged to grow on finely patterned surfaces to identify the biological messages that control their ability to divide and mature into any type of cell.

“In living tissues stem cells receive so many different messages from around the body that it is hard to identify which ones are most important,” says Professor Watt.

“Our new technique involves studying a single cell in isolation, and that really helps us to identify the messages that ultimately drive the stem cell to divide or mature. And, crucially, it also gives us a powerful way of screening drugs that encourage stem cells to repair damaged tissue”.

The methodology can be applied to stem cells from a wide range of embryonic and adult stem cells, opening up the possibilities for harnessing stem cells in regenerative medicine. But to begin with, it is being developed for adult skin stem cells, giving hope for new drugs to promote wound healing and aid the use of stem cells to, for example, treat severe burns.

“We are very interested in developing regenerative medicine as a way to heal our bodies when they can’t heal themselves – when the damage from an injury or disease is too severe, for example,” says Professor Watt.

“For this type of approach to be successful it is important to have powerful ways of identifying the processes that stimulate stem cells to renew themselves or mature into the cells that are needed for healing. When we know what these processes are, we can use that knowledge to develop new treatments.”

  • Connelly JT et al. Actin and serum response factor transduce physical cues from the microenvironment to regulate epidermal stem cell fate decisions. Nature Cell Biology 2010;12:711-718 DOI:10.1038/ncb2074
Image credit: Credit Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images
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