SCOTTISH researchers have discovered a new way of turning cells into different types of tissue, paving the way for new drugs and treatments.
The scientists in Edinburgh pinpointed a protein which allows stem cells – which form the building blocks of the body – to turn into any cell type.
The protein, called Tcf15, kick-starts this process of change, which could be harnessed to make stem cells develop into cells such as those found in the liver or brain.
These cells could then be used to test drugs, before they are tested on patients, as well as creating therapies for debilitating and degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease.
Researchers hope eventually they will be able to grow cells in the lab which could be used to replace damaged tissue in these conditions and many others.
The team, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, studied embryonic stem cells in mice.
They managed to pinpoint the key protein by looking at how some stem cells are naturally prevented from specialising into other cells types. They found two sets of proteins, one of which binds to the other, blocking them from carrying out their different functions.
Using specially developed techniques, they were able to screen the blocked proteins to find out which ones would let the stem cell turn into different types of cell.
The finding means scientists can identify which cells carry this protein and watch in the lab to see how it affects stem cells, giving them a better understanding of the process.
Dr Sally Lowell, from the MRC centre, said: “This gives us better insight into the crucially important first step stem cells take to differentiate into other cell types. Understanding how and when this happens could help to improve the way in which we are able to control this process.”
Dr Lowell said the findings could be used to help with drug screening very soon, but transplanting cells into patients may be five to ten years away.
“The most immediate benefit will be in discovering new drugs and helping the body to repair itself,” she said. “You can have a cell in a dish that has the disease that the patient has, so you can look for disease specific drugs.”
Dr Kieran Breen, director of research and innovation at Parkinson’s UK, said: “Understanding how stem cells make the leap to become the adult cells that make up our bodies is vital if we’re to develop effective stem cell therapies.
“We hope Parkinson’s researchers around the world will be able to build upon this discovery to bring the reality of stem cell treatments a step closer.”