Gene called “Nanog” could be key to master cells
By Patricia Reaney
LONDON (Reuters) – 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
“It represents a major step forward toward reprogramming
adult cells without the need to make human embryos,” he said in
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
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
“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.