Gene Called ‘Nanog’ Could Be Key to Reprogramming Master Cells
By Patricia Reaney
LONDON — A gene named after the mythical Celtic land of the ever young could help explain how to reprogram adult cells into embryonic stem cells to treat diseases, researchers said on Wednesday.
They discovered that the gene called Nanog helped to transform adult mouse cells into embryonic stem cells after cell fusion — when two cells are combined to form a hybrid.
“The effect of Nanog is remarkable. All the hybrid cells became fully converted to embryonic stem cells,” said Dr Jose Silva of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, who reported the findings in the journal Nature.
Stem cells are master cells in the body. Scientists believe they could act as type of human repair system to provide new therapies for illnesses ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s.
Embryonic stem cells found in early embryos have the potential to make any type of cell or tissue. Adult stem cells have a more limited range.
Converting adult stem cells into an embryonic state would eliminate the use of early embryos, which is a scientific and ethical stumbling block for researchers.
Professor Austin Smith, who headed the team, said Nanog is not the only gene involved in reprogramming. There could be several that are important for the process.
He believe the discovery of Nanog, which was named after the mythological Celtic land Tir nan Og, will speed up the search for the others.
“We anticipate now that people will find the other genes, possibly quite quickly,” he said in an interview.
Dr Peter Mountford, of the biotechnology company Stem Cell Science Plc which licenses the technology used in the research, said the study shows Nanog can play a dominant role in stem cell research.
“It represents a major step forward toward reprogramming adult cells without the need to make human embryos,” he said in a statement.
The scientists fused mouse embryonic stem cells with adult brain cells. Adding Nanog increased the number of hybrid cells which all behaved like embryonic stem cells. The hybrid cells also displayed the capability to form into different cell types.
Smith hopes that in the future scientists will be able to expose adult stem cells to Nanog and the other genes to reprogram them to an embryonic state without using cell fusion or nuclear transfer, the technique used to create Dolly the cloned sheep.
“What’s important about the research is that it gives us the first glimpse that this may be possible and that it will be a phenomenon that we will be able to understand and explain in latter attempts,” he added.