New research identifies properties of stem cells that determine cell’s fate

Neural stem cells that differed in fate potential expressed distinct patterns of sugars on the cell surface.| Credit: Lisa Flanagan/UCI School of Medicine
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A research team from the University of California, Irvine has identified intrinsic cell properties that affects the fate of neural stem cells, influencing what type of brain cell they will form: neurons, astrocytes, or oligodendrocytes. This new discovery could provide scientists with a new way to predict or control the fate of stem cells, which can improve their use in transplantation therapies.

The research was published recently in the journal Stem Cell Reports, and was led by Lisa A. Flanagan, PhD, who is an associate professor of neurology at UCI School of Medicine. The study showed that neural stem cells that differ in fate potential exhibit distinct patterns of sugars on the cell surface. These sugars contribute to the neural stem cell membrane’s electrical properties and ultimately the cell’s fate.

“Stem cells hold great promise for treating disease, but it can be difficult to tell what a stem cell will become after it has been transplanted,” said Flanagan. “We can transplant the same number of stem cells in one patient as in another, but the outcomes will be significantly different if the transplanted cells in the first patient become neurons and those in the second patient become astrocytes. With this new discovery, we will be able to predict what a neural stem cell will become and possibly direct cell fate, which will greatly enhance the success of stem cell transplant therapies for a wide variety of diseases.”

In a research that was first published in 2008, Flanagan and her colleagues found a new way to identify and catalogue neural stem cells that differ in fates by using the cell’s electrical properties. Their new research builds on these previous findings by demonstrating that differences in cell surface sugars are the reason that the cells have different electrical properties.

Researchers analyzed several pathways that add sugars to cells and discovered one that differed between cells that make neurons and those that make astrocytes. They activated this pathway in neural stem cells, and changed the cell’s electrical properties, and caused them to make more astrocytes and fewer neurons, which showed that cell surface sugars can control its fate. This pathway is active in cells that are grown for transplants and in cells of the developing brain, therefore this pathway might also be in charge of how neural stem cells form neurons and astrocytes when the brain is being formed during development.

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