Monday, 10 December 2012

Breakthrough in the Understanding of Embryonic Stem Cells

Scientists from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, consider their newly published findings to be a breakthrough in the understanding of embryonic stem cells and how they differentiate. Gerard Brien, PhD student in the laboratory of Dr. Adrian Bracken, is the paper's leading author.

In his paper, Gerard Brien explains how active genes on embryonic stem cells deactivate, as they differentiate into other types of cells. Specifically, the paper's findings explain how the PHF19 protein is employed by mouse embryonic stem cells.

Gerard Brien describes how stem cells without the PHF19 protein are unable to differentiate into other more specialised types of cells. It seems that PHF19 plays a vital role in the deactivation of various genes, the protein does this by reading an epigenetic mark called H3K36me3, which is only found on activated genes. Other proteins are then recruited which replace H3K36me3 with another mark, H3K27me3 which is only detected in deactivated genes.

Dr. Bracken claims that the paper's findings ,among other applications, may be useful for treating certain types of cancer in the future:

“This discovery about PHF19 is an important step forward in our understanding of how stem cells specialise. In addition to its relevance in regenerative medicine, it may also have implications in future cancer therapies. We are also studying a related ‘Polycomb group protein’ called EZH2, which is mutated in lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Several new drugs have been developed to target EZH2 and treat these patients. Our new results suggest that these patients could also be treated by inhibitors of PHF19.”.
Picture of a human embryonic stem cell in culture
A human embryonic stem cell culture

In general the paper covers two topics, embryonic stem cell research and epigenetics. The first topic is all about how embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform info muscle, heart, lung, bone, blood and all other types of cells while epigenetics describes how cells carrying the same genes look and act so different. In other words, it gives us a deeper understanding on why and how certain genes are expressed while other remain silent. 

Great, 1 hour video about embryonic stem cells

Brien GL, Gambero G, O'Connell DJ, Jerman E, Turner SA, Egan CM, Dunne EJ, Jurgens MC, Wynne K, Piao L, Lohan AJ, Ferguson N, Shi X, Sinha KM, Loftus BJ, Cagney G, & Bracken AP (2012). Polycomb PHF19 binds H3K36me3 and recruits PRC2 and demethylase NO66 to embryonic stem cell genes during differentiation. Nature structural & molecular biology, 19 (12), 1273-81 PMID: 23160351

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